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Water questions unanswered in rural W.Va.

CLENDENIN, W.Va. -- Now that the century-old farmhouse on Bufflick Road in Clendenin has returned to Rita Parrish's family, she's worried the land it sits on could be affected by water contaminated in the Jan. 9 chemical leak that released a coal-processing chemical into the Elk River.

"We've got something we're proud of," Parrish said of the family's acreage.

The farm has a few independent sources of water -- a creek borders what will someday be a cow pasture; a spring is used to quench the thirst of its horses. There's also a well on the property, though no one drinks from it, Parrish said.

Parrish said she worries those sources could be affected by contaminated water from residents flushing their home systems. Local health departments last week recommended those with septic tanks -- like many who live on the mountain -- flush contaminated water into their yards using water hoses. Homeowners with septic systems were also advised they could flush their homes in stages, but run the risk of flooding their drain fields.

Officials have little definitive information about how Crude MCHM -- the chemical released into the Elk River -- affects the environment.

"If it seeps into the ground, what's it going to do to the people who have well water?" Parrish asked.

The state's Department of Environmental Protection said it has "no reason to believe" the coal-processing chemical would contaminate well water or ground water. This assumption is based on sampling taking place at the Charleston Sanitary Board, where test results showed "non-detect" levels for Crude MCHM in water coming into and going out of the plant.

"If these samples are representative of what to expect from the flushing process then effects should be minimal," DEP spokesperson Tom Aluise said.

Sample results from Jan. 13, 15 and 16 showed "non-detect" for Crude MCHM, according to Aluise. The DEP hasn't released those results despite repeated requests from The Gazette.

Freedom Industries -- the company responsible for storing Crude MCHM -- revealed Tuesday a second chemical, called "PPH," leaked into the Elk River. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that officials believe the water company's filtration system could remove PPH from water.

Aluise couldn't provide information from the DEP's water and waste management division regarding whether Crude MCHM or PPH could affect water that is not treated by the sanitary board.

Aluise recommended questions about Crude MCHM's biodegradability in soil, septic systems or how it might affect microbiology in septic tanks be referred to local health departments.

While the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department told The Gazette last week Crude MCHM will break down in soil after 30 days, health officials still haven't verified this information.

Neither the health department nor the state's Bureau for Public Health has issued any information regarding the effect the chemical might have on septic systems or groundwater, despite repeated requests from The Gazette.

Craig Mains, a technical assistant with the National Environmental Services Center in Morgantown, said the organization hadn't had many chemical leak-related calls regarding septic tank concerns. The NESC assists rural communities with drinking water and wastewater issues, among others.

Mains described homeowner questions as "legitimate" since much isn't known about Crude MCHM.

Mains could only speak generally on how chemicals might act in a septic system.

"Septic systems are biological systems, so toxic substances can affect them," Mains said. "But depending on the toxicity of the substance, they can be kind of resilient, as well, as long as the substance isn't too toxic."

One homeowner who asked not to be named said she feared flushing her elderly mother's home, because of what it might do to the septic system.

"We're just using bottled water, which kind of cramps you when you're taking care of a 96-year-old woman," she said.

For Parrish, her concerns still lie with the contaminated water that was contained in the large tank atop the ridge adjacent from her family's property.

"What's it going to be like five years from now?" she wondered.

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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