CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State officials say the chemical contamination affecting the water supply to 200,000 West Virginia American Water Company customers in nine counties is becoming more diluted, though it’s still unclear when the water will be safe to use.
A do-not-use order was issued late Thursday by the water company.
“I don’t know how long the order will last,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said at a Friday afternoon news conference.
An undetermined amount of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methane—used in the coal industry—leaked from a Freedom Industries tank Thursday, spilling into Elk River. It was sucked up in the water company’s intake line about a mile downstream.
Officials have been running tests to determine the levels of the chemical. West Virginia National Guard Adjutant General James Hoyer said they have learned it’s becoming more diluted.
“There has been a reduction in the concentration in the water from two parts per million to 1.7 parts per million,” Hoyer said. “The CDC says one part per million would be an acceptable level. Point-one would be the level there they would not notice any smell or taste difference.”
Still, Hoyer cautioned it could take awhile before they know that the water is safe. “It takes 46 minutes to run each test,” he said.
Earlier in the day, WVAW president Jeff McIntyre said they were trying to figure out how best to treat the contamination. “What kind of quantities can be present in the drinking water and not pose harm to our customers?” he said.
The spill occurred when a tank at Freedom Industries began leaking, said Jim Dorsey of the state Department of Environmental Protection. “It was not a catastrophic failure of the tank or the containment,” Dorsey said. “There was a leak in the tank.”
Dorsey estimates that between 2,000 and 5,000 gallons of the chemical leaked from the 40,000 gallon tank, but not all of it entered the river. “Quite a bit of it was caught in the secondary containment,” he said.
Still, questions remain about how the leak was handled.
The state DEP was called at 8:15 a.m. Thursday with a complaint about an odor. The agency tracked it to the Freedom Industries site by 11:15 a.m., but the company did not provide a notice of the leak until 12:05 p.m.
“The company probably could have reported it a little sooner,” said DEP secretary Randy Huffman.
After that, it took several hours for WVAW to determine that their filtering system would not clean the chemical out of the water. The do-no-user order was not issued until later in the day.
“I can’t tell you why it was not detected quicker,” said Tomblin. “This discharge of pollutants is unacceptable.”
State health officials say four to six people have reported to area hospitals with symptoms, such as nausea, that could be related to exposure to the contaminated water. “If you experience symptoms, seek care immediately,” Tomblin said.