New Warnings for West Virginians Raise Alarms After Spill

Jan 17, 2014 5:36 pm ET

(Updates with Eastman Chemical studies in seventh paragraph.)

Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) -- A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning to pregnant women in West Virginia has raised alarms because officials, relying on the agency’s guidance, had been assuring residents their tapwater was safe after a chemical spill prompted a do-not-use order.

The CDC’s change “resulted in confusion, fear and mistrust,” West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Representative Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, wrote in a letter to the agency yesterday. “People must have confidence that their water supply is safe for use.”

The CDC’s about-face spotlights what critics say is insufficient information about the coal-processing chemical that last week leaked from a Freedom Industries Inc. tank on the banks of the Elk River, less than 2 miles miles upstream from a water intake serving the state capital. The company today filed for bankruptcy protection in West Virginia.

The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, was exempted from testing under laws that govern toxic substances, because the statutes grandfathered in materials already in use.

Officials at West Virginia American Water Co. in Charleston said the CDC had told them the water would be safe once the chemical level fell to one part per million, and began clearing parts of a nine-county region they serve in recent days to begin flushing their systems and using their taps.

Alternative Source

In a letter dated Jan. 15, the CDC told West Virginia health officials: “Out of an abundance of caution, you may wish to consider an alternative drinking water source for pregnant women.”

Eastman Chemical Co., the maker of the chemical known as MCHM, separately today published its internal safety tests, which the CDC relied on for its review. Health advocates sought the release to give outside experts a chance to review the CDC’s determination and scope of the scientific inquiries.

The Jan. 9 spill prompted the largest “do not use” order ever issued by West Virginia American Water, affecting 300,000 residents. Service restoration began Jan. 13, with residents told the persistence of a licorice odor or chemical taste was no cause of concern.

As of today, water was cleared for all 100,000 customer accounts, although a few areas were told to boil their water before drinking. The company told residents in three towns where an all-clear was issued to “have limited contact” with water, based on guidance from the state public health bureau.

Resident Concern

“Our water was cleared, but what does that mean?” asked Kathie Giltinan, a Charleston resident, on Jan. 13. “It’s safe because that’s the number they picked to say it was safe.”

Vikas Kapil, chief medical officer for the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC, told reporters yesterday that the agency established a standard based on limited information. He said it had to rely on just two relevant studies of the chemical, both of which were done on animals.

“There are no studies that we know of that focus on cancer effects or reproductive effects” of the chemical, he said. Water with less than 1 parts per million of the chemical should be safe for everyone, he said, and the extra warning was given for pregnant women “out of an abundance of caution.”

Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, criticized the amount of information the CDC has released, and said the West Virginia incident shows the gaps in the current toxic-chemical law.

Questions Remain

“We still don’t know how relevant these studies are to the situation at hand,” Denison said in an interview. “There are still a lot of questions.”

Those include how long were the animals exposed to the chemical and what health effects did the scientists look for, he said.

Freedom Industries listed assets and debt of as much as $10 million each in its Chapter 11 petition filed today in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Charleston, West Virginia. The filing seeks protection from the company’s creditors and may halt more than two dozen lawsuits that residents and business owners have already filed over the incident.

The company also is transferring the chemical and tainted water recovered at the spill site, now stored at its Poca Blending LLC facility, into double-walled tanks, said Tom Aluise, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Five Notices

State inspectors issued five notices of violation at the Poca facility in Nitro on Jan. 13, including for failure to provide appropriate secondary containment, and the company responded by bringing in new tanks, Aluise said. The transfer is expected to be completed by Jan. 23, he said.

The state also ordered the company to stop using heat to extract the chemical from water collected after the spill until regulators determine whether an air emission permit is needed, Aluise said.

The state initially said the last inspection of tanks at the spill site was in 1991. A review of records uncovered reports from other inspections through 2012, Aluise said. The records are still being examined, he said.

Local residents reported in recent days that their water still didn’t taste right and their homes were still filled with the chemical odor, even after they “flushed” their systems as advised by the water company.

Of the 317 patients who sought hospital treatment for symptoms linked to the chemical, 31 have gone to hospitals in recent days, according to data from the state health department. Of that overall total, 14 were admitted. None were still hospitalized yesterday.

Manchin and Capito asked the CDC for the methodology used to develop the safety standard, what information led the agency to issue its later caution for pregnant women and when it first became concerned about the possible impact on those expecting.

“How confident are you that 1 part per million will remain the protective standard for all West Virginians -- including young children, those with medical conditions, and the elderly?” the lawmakers asked.

--Editors: Steve Geimann, Jon Morgan