New Studies of MCHM Leak's Impacts Funded
3 schools, including WVU, get Rapid Response Research money
30 January 2014
By Ken Ward Jr.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"I understand the limitations of what they're doing," Simonton
said. "They don't seem to want to admit the limitations of what
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.