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Almost a year after chemical spill, WVAWC still defending water quality

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Nearly a year after the Freedom Industries chemical spill on the Elk River contaminated tap water for an estimated 300,000 West Virginians, officials with West Virginia American Water Company are still trying to reassure customers the water is safe.

Jeff McIntyre, president of WVAWC, said the Jan. 9, 2014 spill of crude MCHM upriver from the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment facility that provides water to parts of nine counties and the subsequent water emergency “shook the community.”

The aftershocks, he said, are still being felt as the one-year anniversary of the spill approaches.

“We’re just trying to rebuild that confidence in the community by the things that we’re doing and having people understand that, yes, they have a choice to make, but it is a good choice to go back to drinking the tap water,” McIntyre said on Wednesday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”

So far, he said, West Virginia American Water has spent $12 million in direct response to the Freedom Industries chemical spill and its aftermath. In mailings sent to WVAWC customers recently, the company detailed the steps taken in the past 12 months.

“This letter that went out was, in large part, in (response to) hearing people saying that nothing was being done,” McIntyre said. The WVAWC response, he argued, has been extensive thus far and will continue into the New Year.

Those steps have included source water protection planning, investments in new lab equipment for water testing and early detection systems, methods of addressing water loss, improvements to the emergency customer notification system plus emergency planning along with evaluations of possible alternate water sources.

WVAWC’s Kanawha Valley Water Treatment facility has one water intake on the Elk River. According to McIntyre’s estimates, building a second water intake, possibly on the Kanawha River, could cost between $70 million and $150 million.

Jan. 1 is the deadline for tank inspections mandated in the Aboveground Storage Tank Act, the legislation written in response to the Freedom Industries chemical spill.

It required storage tanks, like the Freedom tank that leaked MCHM, to be registered with the state Department of Environmental Protection along with tank-specific emergency response plans and, in some cases, subjected to inspections. Additionally, water utilities must develop emergency plans.

McIntyre said he believes the law will make a difference.

“We’re looking at added protection to an already world-class water treatment facility and some of the things that we’re looking at go beyond the legislation,” he said. “We’ve all been impacted by this. We’re learning from this event.”

Several former Freedom Industries executives, including Gary Southern, Freedom’s former president, are facing federal charges for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act tied to, what federal officials called, “unsound” operations at the Elk River tank farm in Charleston.

“They put an entire population needlessly at risk,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in December.

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