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New studies of MCHM leak's impacts funded

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Researchers from three universities have received emergency funding for studies of the long-term impacts of the Jan. 9 Elk River chemical leak, including an examination of whether the "flushing" advised by state officials and the water company adequately cleared toxic chemicals from home plumbing systems.

National Science Foundation officials said Thursday they had approved Rapid Response Research grants to allow experts from the University of South Alabama, West Virginia University and Virginia Tech to more closely examine the impacts of the chemical Crude MCHM.

The grant announcements come as West Virginia's government continued to insist that the water is safe, and harshly criticized at least one local scientist who has raised questions about the way the crisis is being handled.

In announcing the organization's $150,000 in grants, a NSF official called the Freedom Industries' leak "one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century."

"The main challenge for authorities managing the spill has been how little researchers know about the chemical and how it interacts with other substances," said William Cooper, director of the NSF's Chemicals, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems division.

The NSF grants will go to:

• Andrew Whelton of the University of South Alabama, who will examine the chemical's absorption into and removal from plastic drinking-water pipes, focusing mainly on houses.

• Jennifer Weidhaas of WVU, who will assess the extent and contamination in drinking water, the treatment plant and areas near the Elk River.

• Andrea Dietrich of Virginia Tech, who will study the physical and chemical behavior of MCHM itself in the environment, to gather data necessary to model the environmental fate of the chemical.

Together, the NSF said, the three studies present a systems approach that will provide a better understanding of the fate of MCHM in water systems.

"One of the concerns in this spill is authorities have little to no information about exactly what this chemical does to drinking-water plumbing systems," Whelton said. "Chemicals tend to absorb more into plastic pipes than metal pipes. Plastic pipes can act like a sponge, sucking up chemicals."

After the leak was discovered, Whelton drove to West Virginia from Alabama with a team of researchers that's been taking water samples from homes and assisted residents with what they say is a safer and more effective method of "flushing" the leak's chemicals from plumbing systems.

Starting Jan. 13, water company officials and the state government began a weeklong process of lifting broad "do not use" orders for sections of the nine-county area impacted by the MCHM leak. After the order was lifted, residents were advised to run their hot water for 15 minutes, their cold water for 5 minutes, and their outside faucets for 5 minutes, to flush the chemical from their homes.

However, since then, residents have continued to complain that the black-licorice smell of the chemical is lingering, especially in their hot water.

State officials, in announcing their guidance for flushing, rejected an earlier recommendation from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that residents be advised to flush their plumbing systems until the chemical odor is gone. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had said in internal documents that flushing the chemicals out of the system "may require a fairly prolonged time to complete," perhaps two to three weeks.

A description of Whelton's NSF-funded study said that, "Utility and government responders do not have the information needed to determine the extent of plastic pipe contamination and their ability to be decontaminated by clean-water flushing."

Whelton said, "I have never witnessed such a grand scientific need to characterize household plumbing-system water quality. We need to know more about the fundamental engineering and science of these interactions, which is why this is an NSF-funded project."

During a legislative hearing Wednesday, Marshall University environmental engineer Scott Simonton made similar comments. Simonton, who is consulting for a law firm that's filed suit over the leak, said residents he's met with have flushed their plumbing for hours and still have a licorice odor in their water.

Later on Wednesday, the state Department of Health and Human Resources issued a statement and held a news conference attacking Simonton. They focused on his comments that one water sample he had taken at a downtown Charleston business had detected cancer-causing formaldehyde, which he said is a possible byproduct of the Crude MCHM breaking down, in the water.

The statement, issued in the name of the DHHR's Bureau for Public Health commissioner, Dr. Letitia Tierney, called Simonton's comments about formaldehyde "totally unfounded."

At the news conference, Tierney said the DHHR is beginning to examine records of the more than 500 people who sought medical attention, to determine if there is a clear link to chemical exposure from the leak.

Later, though, in a written response issued through a DHHR public relations official Thursday afternoon, Tierney repeated the government's previous statements that it has no plans to test water in people's homes or re-examine the state's flushing protocol for residents.

"At this time, [the] DHHR is not planning to investigate the home flushing process or conduct testing inside of people's homes," Tierney said in the written response.

In an interview Thursday, Simonton noted that state officials had responded only to his comments regarding formaldehyde, not to his broader remarks questioning if the flushing process worked and if enough is known about what happened to the MCHM that entered people's home plumbing.

"The formaldehyde piece was just an example of what we don't know," Simonton said.

He said it's understandable that state public-health officials don't know the answer to every question about the leak's impacts, but he said they need to show a commitment to getting those answers.

"This is Environmental Science 101," Simonton said. "It's stunning that anyone can come out and defend not doing these things."

Simonton, a member of the state Environmental Quality Board, said public-health officials need to more clearly explain to residents how little they really know at this point about the potential long-term impacts.

"I understand the limitations of what they're doing," Simonton said. "They don't seem to want to admit the limitations of what they're doing."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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