A Month After Spill, ‘West Virginians Need Answers Now,’ State Official Says

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 04: Natalie Tennant (L), West Virginia Secretary of State, testifies during a Senate Water and Wildlife Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill on February 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. The subcommittee is hearing testimony on the safety and security of the drinking water in West Virginia following a chemical spill that contaminated a large part of the state's water system last month. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Feb. 4, 2014, 2:18 p.m.

While mem­bers of Con­gress duel over le­gis­lat­ive safe­guards to pre­vent fu­ture spills, West Vir­gin­ia of­fi­cials say im­me­di­ate ac­tion is needed to deal with fal­lout from a chem­ic­al leak that led to a par­tial drink­ing-wa­ter ban in the state last month.

“West Vir­gini­ans need an­swers now,” Sec­ret­ary of State Nat­alie Ten­nant said Tues­day at a Sen­ate sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing. “People are fed up. They are angry, and they are scared.”

Back-and-forth among state and loc­al au­thor­it­ies over drink­ing-wa­ter con­tam­in­a­tion has caused pub­lic dis­trust and sparked con­cern that the wa­ter from the Elk River near Char­le­ston still poses a threat to pub­lic health.

In mid-Janu­ary, health of­fi­cials in the state cau­tioned preg­nant wo­men against drink­ing the wa­ter des­pite the fact that the ban on drink­ing wa­ter had already been lif­ted.

Adding fuel to the fire, re­ports sur­faced late last month that the chem­ic­al that had leaked in­to the river — a form of meth­an­ol known as MCHM — may be break­ing down in­to form­al­de­hyde, a known car­ci­no­gen.

“Lack of con­sist­ent, trust­worthy in­form­a­tion has been among our greatest chal­lenges and frus­tra­tions in the af­ter­math of the Elk River chem­ic­al spill,” Ten­nant told the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Sub­com­mit­tee on Wa­ter and Wild­life.

The West Vir­gin­ia of­fi­cial voiced sup­port for le­gis­la­tion in­tro­duced last week by Demo­crat­ic Sens. Jay Rock­e­feller and Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia and Bar­bara Box­er of Cali­for­nia man­dat­ing reg­u­lar in­spec­tions of chem­ic­al stor­age tanks, but she called on sen­at­ors to do more than of­fer an un­cer­tain le­gis­lat­ive fix.

Ten­nant asked sub­com­mit­tee mem­bers to join her and res­id­ents of the state in pe­ti­tion­ing the fed­er­al Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol to ex­plain how it ar­rived at a re­cent de­term­in­a­tion that drink­ing wa­ter is safe for pub­lic con­sump­tion in the state.

“Each one of those sig­na­tures is a mom, dad, friend, or neigh­bor,” Ten­nant said. “They de­serve to know with 100 per­cent cer­tainty that what’s com­ing out of their faucets will not harm them and their fam­il­ies.”

She also asked sen­at­ors to work with state and loc­al of­fi­cials and the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices to de­vel­op a study of the long-term con­sequences of the spill.

Rock­e­feller echoed Ten­nant’s con­cerns. “West Vir­gini­ans want to know four things,” he said. “How did this hap­pen? Is the wa­ter now safe? What are the long-term health con­sequences … and how do we make sure this nev­er hap­pens again?”

Testi­mony provided dur­ing the hear­ing also poin­ted to the lurk­ing po­ten­tial for oth­er chem­ic­al spills in the state.

Ac­cord­ing to Randy Huff­man, head of the West Vir­gin­ia De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion, a state in­vest­ig­a­tion found that more than 100 stor­age tanks sim­il­ar to the one that leaked in the most re­cent chem­ic­al spill are loc­ated near drink­ing wa­ter sup­plies.

“These num­bers clearly raise con­cerns that this in­cid­ent could be re­peated in oth­er areas of the state,” Huff­man said.

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