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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Officials Deem West Virginia Water ‘Usable’

Freedom Industries on Barlow St on the banks of the Elk River is seen on January 10, 2014 in Charleston, West Virginia. West Virginia American Water determined Thursday MCHM chemical had 'overwhelmed' the plant's capacity to keep it out of the water from a spill at Freedom Industries in Charleston. An unknown amount of the hazardous chemical contaminated the public water system for potentially 300,000 people in West Virginia. (Tom Hindman/Getty Images)

Freedom Industries on Barlow St on the banks of the Elk River is seen on January 10, 2014 in Charleston, West Virginia. (Tom Hindman/Getty Images)

More than a month after thousands of gallons of chemicals used in coal processing leaked from Freedom Industries tanks into the Elk River, residents are still not confident the water is safe to drink.

The chemical leaked, MCHM has tainted the water of more than 300,000 people in the area and people are still reporting the water smells like licorice.

Yesterday, officials testified in a hearing before members of Congress and were asked repeatedly if the water was in fact safe for consumption.

“I’d still like to hear it’s safe and I think that’s what everyone wants — that one word,” Rep. Shelley Moore Capito said, addressing Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health.

“That’s in a way a difficult thing to say, because everybody has a different definition of safe,” Tierney replied. “Am I confident in the science? I’m as confident as I can be, given what we have. I believe the water, based on the standards we have, is usable for every purpose, and that includes drinking, bathing and cooking.”

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with NPR’s Brian Naylor, who is in Charleston, about West Virginia’s water dilemma.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

And is the water in Charleston, West Virginia safe to drink? A month after thousands of gallons of a chemical used in coal processing leaked into the Elk River from Freedom Industries tanks, restaurants are now advertising that they only cook and serve bottled water. And lawmakers are demanding answers.

At a congressional hearing in Charleston yesterday, Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the State Bureau for Public Health, was asked by Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito: Is the water safe to drink?


LETITIA TIERNEY: That's in a way a difficult thing to say because everybody has a different definition of safe. Am I confident in the science? I believe the water, based on the standards we have, is usable for every purpose. And that includes drinking, bathing and cooking.

YOUNG: Let's bring in NPR's Brian Naylor, who's in Charleston. And Brian, does everyone have a version of what's safe? Isn't there a regulatory one?

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Well, officials are really hesitant to give a definitive answer because there have been so few tests done of this chemical, MCHM, that no one really knows its toxology. No one knows how dangerous it is or if it has any - what kind of effects it has on people's health. So from a scientific basis, you know, doctors and officials are very hesitant to make any flat declarations.

I should say Dr. Tierney, when she made that statement at that hearing, had a bottle of water in front of her that she brought from home. She said it was her tap water. And she was drinking it. So I think people are trying to sort of give a cautious sense that it's not necessarily hazardous. It's OK to drink. But nobody wants to flatly say, yeah, it's safe.

YOUNG: Also at the hearing was the head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, saying that the tank farm where this leak occurred was inspected three months ago, and it fell short of federal standards. Now, the tank farm was inspected but not the specific tank that caused this leak. But do we know what happened there? Do we know what fell through the cracks there that this was below standard, but it seems like nothing was done?

NAYLOR: Apparently - and this came out in the hearing yesterday - Freedom Industries conducted its own private inspection or hired consultants and engineers to inspect the tank farm in last October, and they found that - according to the head of the safety board, that the tanks were, quote, not necessarily in full compliance with industry and federal government standards. Now, it's not clear what federal government standards there are for these tanks or what the industry standards are.

So that's led, you know, for calls for legislation. Both Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito and Senator Joe Manchin have introduced bills that would set some standards for these tanks and all chemical storage facilities. It's a long way between saying we're going to introduce a bill and getting a bill that has some teeth to it enacted, but at least the process does seem to be underway.

YOUNG: So meanwhile, Brian Naylor, what are people doing and saying there? What are you picking up from people in the area?

NAYLOR: Yeah. People are, you know, are really concerned. And there are water distribution tank trucks that come in from outside the area, and there are people still going and filling up their jugs with water. People are still buying water in the stores. So people are very reluctant to drink the water.

Just last week a couple of schools closed because people were complaining about overwhelming smell of licorice. This chemical has a distinctive licorice-like odor, and so people smell that and they want to run away from the water. So life is anything but returned to normal.

YOUNG: NPR's Brian Naylor in Charleston, West Virginia. Brian, thanks so much.

NAYLOR: Thank you, Robin.


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

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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