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11:03 pm
Thu February 6, 2014

After W. Va. Water Contamination, Senators Examine Tougher Regulations

Originally published on Tue February 4, 2014 4:01 pm

U.S. senators are hearing testimony about how to prevent the kind of chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water in and around Charleston, West Virginia, last month. Many residents continue to complain about a strong odor in their water, despite being told it’s safe.

Beth Vorhees is covering the story for West Virginia Public Radio and joins Here & Now’s Robin Young with the latest.

Guest

Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Well, this morning in Washington, senators demanded answers to the question: Why are 300,000 West Virginians still having problems with their drinking water nearly a month after a chemical that's used to wash coal spilled from an essentially unregulated, aboveground factory storage tank on the Elk River in Charleston? At today's congressional hearing, West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller said he'd heard of families moving out of state because of the spill.

SENATOR JAY ROCKEFELLER: They have young children. They have no confidence in the future. They have no confidence in our regulatory scheme, either at the state or federal level, and they're not taking any chances because they don't know what that water's going to be like in the future, and neither do I.

YOUNG: And last night at a public hearing in the state capital, Charleston, a resident, Connie Greytop Lewis(ph), spoke to state lawmakers.

CONNIE GREYTOP LEWIS: I can still smell the licorice in our hot water after flushing according to the instructions offered to the public. I expect we're in the market for a new hot water heater, and I do appreciate the suggestion of replacing all of the pipes. It may be necessary.

YOUNG: Beth Vorhees is covering the story for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Beth, replacing all of the pipes in the house? What is the status of the water? We just heard it sounds like it still smells in some places. Are people still getting rashes?

BETH VORHEES, BYLINE: Well, about 50 people spoke at that public hearing last night. A few of them said they can still smell the licorice in the water. I think one woman said it does give her headaches. One young student from Boone County said she saw some of her fellow students with chemical burns after the water was declared safe in her school. But there has been nothing released by hospitals or state officials about illnesses that have been caused by the water.

YOUNG: Well, just last week the state began to redistribute bottled water after declaring the water was safe. Tests at three local schools found elevated levels of the MCHM chemical that spilled. So it doesn't sound as if it is safe. Is there some definitive statement from the state?

VORHEES: Nothing definitive from the state. There is something definitive from the president of the West Virginia American Water Company, Jeff McIntyre, who says he is drinking the water. Now two stories here about the water distribution coming back up.

First, a member of the environmental quality board is a Marshall University scientist, and he announced before a legislative committee that he feels the MCHM is breaking down in the water and is turning to formaldehyde, and that's dangerous to inhale in a hot shower.

Now the state director of the Bureau for Public Health and others in the scientific community weighed in on that and said there's nothing to be concerned about. Formaldehyde is a substance that quickly dilutes in the water, and you'd have to take a shower with 500-degree water to inhale it.

But that just raised concerns so much more that the governor required the water company to provide bottled water again, and water distribution sites were again set up. Now there were five schools that were tested that found levels of MCHM that concerned those who were doing the testing. Those systems were flushed out again over the weekend, retested and determined to be safe.

YOUNG: Well, you know, we're hearing that people don't trust that word. What about Freedom Industries? This is the company whose storage tank leaked the chemical a few days ago. A recording of the emergency call that a company official made on January 9, the day of the spill, came out. Now he incorrectly says that the chemical has been contained, and then he jokes with the operator. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMERGENCY CALL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Methylcyclohexanemethanol.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Uh, say again? I'm sorry?

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I know, just bear with me a second please.

YOUNG: So he's joking about the name of it, Methyl - laughing about it. This can't be going over well there. That company's declared bankruptcy. Look, we know that there's almost no regulation of the aboveground chemical storage tanks they had. Tanks like this exist on riverbanks all over the country. What's being proposed to do with those tanks, and what are people thinking about Freedom Industries, which owned the tanks? I mean, are there lawsuits lining up?

VORHEES: Oh, there are lawsuits. There were lawsuits that came out just days after the water crisis began. Restaurants started suing. Citizens filed lawsuit. There's going to be plenty of lawsuits. Of course Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy. And yeah, part of last night's public hearing at the House chamber at the state capitol, people venting, people angry, people telling lawmakers we don't trust you, we don't trust the government, we don't trust the water. That was the big message that came out yesterday.

But the state legislature is working through a bill. It's Senate Bill 373, and it does require owners and operators to register the tanks, DEP to inspect these tanks, for water companies to have a second supply of a water intake valve in case of contamination. The U.S. Senate has also looked at practically - a bill with practically the same provisions.

YOUNG: Well, but one disturbing thing we heard today at the Senate hearing says that some officials said that new regulations may not stop spills like the one in Virginia. And as we said, these tanks are...

VORHEES: West Virginia.

YOUNG: Yeah, West Virginia, and these tanks are all over the country. Beth Vorhees, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, thanks so much.

VORHEES: You're welcome.

YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.