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State officials working on home water testing plan

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State officials are finalizing a plan for water quality testing, focused on crude MCHM, in some of the West Virginia homes where the tap water was unusable for days last month following a Jan. 9 chemical leak along the Elk River.

“We are looking at a plan to go in to sample certain homes,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin confirmed on Thursday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”

He said the work to develop protocols that would take into the account the differences in individual home plumbing systems started on Wednesday and continued, through the night, into Thursday.

Tomblin said a sampling of homes would be used since it would not be possible to test the estimated 100,000 homes and businesses that fall within West Virginia American Water Company’s service area.

Such testing, the governor said, could help ease some fears.  “If the tests come back at non-detect levels (of MCHM), (the hope is) that people will feel a little bit more comfortable.  But, once again, it’s a matter of — do you trust water?  We are doing everything we can.  We hear what the people are saying, that they still have some fear or concerns over the water,” he said.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha, 40) said the people he represents have no confidence in their water at all, a month after a chemical leak at Freedom Industries that contaminated the tap water for 300,000 West Virginians.

“I think there really is still a great deal of reluctance and concern and lack of confidence in the water system,” said Armstead.  “There are a lot of mixed messages coming out and I just believe that there is a lack of confidence, not only in the water system, but in our government.”

On Wednesday, Armstead and House Speaker Tim Miley (D-Harrison, 48) sent a letter to Gov. Tomblin requesting that a representative sample of homes be tested for crude MCHM and PPH.  They’re asking that the state conduct the testing and West Virginia American Water Company pay for it.

At the same time, several scientists are using $150,000 in emergency grant funding from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of MCHM, including the impacts in homes.

Andrew Whelton, a professor at the University of South Alabama, has already taken samples at ten affected homes and was waiting on the results of those tests as of Thursday.  His work was focused on the effects of MCHM on drinking water pipes throughout WVAW’s system.

“We believe that testing inside people’s homes is important to understand the chemical levels that still remain at their taps, so then the officials can determine what they can do about it to remediate that problem,” said Whelton on Thursday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”

On Wednesday, Shawn Garvin, the regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region III, said officials did not believe the chemical compound of crude MCHM and PPH had “bonded” to home piping.

Whelton disputed that.  “When you throw a sponge into a bathtub, you don’t say, ‘Hey, that water is bonding to the sponge.’  You say, ‘Hey, that water is permeating or swarming into the sponge,'” he explained.  “That’s likely what happened inside customer homes, so to use the words ‘chemical bond to pipes’ implies that the EPA may not understand what actually happened inside customer residences.”

In addition to Whelton’s work, Dr. Jennifer Weidhaas with West Virginia University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department is studying the extent of contamination in the drinking water, while Andrea Dietrich from Virginia Tech is examining the environmental effects of MCHM.

Their goal is to map exposure levels and establish the actual toxic effects of the chemical compound in the coming months.

As of Thursday, Tomblin could not confirm when and where home testing, from state officials, would start.

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