INSTITUTE, W.Va. – The independent group charged with investigating the Jan. 9 chemical spill in the Elk River released its initial report Friday, concluding that problems remain and more testing is needed.
Only a smattering of seats at West Virginia State University’s Ferrell Hall were filled as the scientists revealed what they learned through testing 10 homes in the impacted nine counties around Charleston. That water sampling took place between Feb. 11-18, a month after the initial spill was reported.
Dr. Andrew Whelton, who is leading the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, said more testing needs to be done.
“Our conclusions are: problem remains, more work is needed to truly understand what’s going on in the system.”
Though it was not the answer many people were seeking. Whelton stressed they did find out some important information.
Members of four of the 10 homes sampled sought medical attention after coming in contact with the water and MCHM was found in all 10 homes.
“All home tap waters contained 4-MCHM at less than 10 parts per billion. The maximum we found was 6.1 ppb. About 90 percent of the values were less than 2.2 ppb,” Whelton said.
At the time the state was using the 10 ppb measure as “safe to drink.”
Dr. Michael McGuire headed up the odor portion of the testing. He had nine panelists smell three cups of water. Two were filled with bottled water and a third contained MCHM.
At times the presentation sounded Greek. (“What you do is calculate the geometric mean of these two numbers, which means you multiply them together and take the square root,” said McGuire.) But beyond the calculations, McGuire said the licorice smell remained even within a “very, very small concentration” of MCHM—all the way down to parts per trillion.
“Folks could smell it. They knew it was there. They recognized it as a licorice odor. They certainly found it objectionable and they certainly let everybody know about it!”
Whelton said there also remain questions for West Virginia American Water and local officials to answer.
“Certain consumers mentioned they were not notified (of the contamination) and when they called officials involved in the incident they told them their area was not impacted despite having the licorice odor in the water,” Whelton said. “Some people’s clothes smelled like licorice for weeks. There was no information available for water safety for pets. When individuals were told not to provide water to their children under three, many people said, ‘Well, what about my small chihuahua?’”
Whelton said those issues have yet to be answered. He stressed now it’s time to head into the next phase of the project, which includes testing a larger sample of homes to see if the MCHM continues to linger.