Water Specialist Won’t Drink the Water

Charleston Gazette
14 April 2014
By Rachel Molenda, Staff writer

One water treatment specialist said Monday that Crude MCHM continues to be released by West Virginia American Water’s carbon filters, and he won’t drink the tap water until all 16 are replaced.

“I knew that the filters at West Virginia American that removed the MCHM eventually are eventually going to desorb all of that material,” environmental engineer and chemist Dayton Carpenter told the Rotary Club of Charleston. “And sure enough as they’re doing the testing right now, it is desorbing. It’s going out into the system at very low concentration. But to me, we’re talking months.”

Test results made public in March showed that trace amounts of MCHM were detected in treated water coming from the facility, but spokeswoman Laura Jordan told the Gazette that “wasn’t unexpected,” in an earlier report.

The water company started changing its filters two weeks ago. Jordan said Monday that two have been completely replaced and samples taken from those filters show no trace of Crude MCHM -- the coal processing chemical that leaked into the Elk River in January, contaminating the drinking water for 300,000 Kanawha Valley residents.

Carpenter is president of Carpenter Treatment Solutions, LLC, and has designed water treatment facilities for 35 years. He is also a licensed remediation specialist for hazardous waste remediation at brownfield sites.

Carpenter wrote multiple newspaper editorials during the water crisis, because he “couldn’t sit on the sidelines,” he said.

He said one of his concerns in the days following the leak was the lack of information about Crude MCHM.

“It seemed to be a pretty benign material until you start smelling licorice in your tap. And then your life changes,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter said his first instinct would have been to close intakes at the treatment plant. But, West Virginia American Water’s distribution, which includes many systems Carpenter designed, wouldn’t allow for that, he said.

“I didn’t understand that there’s 179 pressure zones in the nine counties that West Virginia American Water operates in,” Carpenter said. “Most systems I know, five to seven. Maybe 10 to 12. One-hundred-and-seventy-nine is just astronomical to me.”

Carpenter said he was told by the company the much of the region would have been without water within eight hours had the intakes been closed.

West Virginia American Water officials repeatedly defended keeping the plant’s intakes open during and after the leak, citing the need to use water for flushing toilets and fire protection and describing a system that was short on water because of people leaving their taps dripping during the intense cold in January.

Carpenter criticized the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation that water was consumable once chemical levels reached 1 part-per-million, a number he called “foolish.”

“It was a true statement that it was shaky math to say that 1 ppm was safe,” Carpenter said. “You really had only one data point for rats that had really no correlation with humans.”

Material Safety Data Sheets from several manufacturers listed little to no health data on the chemical, aside from an Eastman Chemical Co. study that gave an estimate of how much Crude MCHM killed half of the lab rats exposed to it. Eastman is one manufacturer of the chemical.

Outside public health and toxicology experts questioned federal officials’ 1 ppm standard, because of this lack of information.

Carpenter said the nose can detect Crude MCHM at levels as low as 10 and 20 parts-per-billion.

“It’ll take 20 years or more to get epidemiological studies that can tell us whether MCHM will have any effects to the human body,” Carpenter said. “Why wouldn’t you use that factor? If you can smell it, don’t drink it.”

Carpenter gave the Legislature a B+ for its passage of the chemical tank bill that regulates above-ground chemical storage tanks like the ones at Freedom Industries -- the company responsible for the MCHM leak. Carpenter said he made several recommendations for the legislation, which was signed into law last month.

“I believe strongly in tank inspection, and we need an early warning system,” Carpenter said.

While Carpenter said moving the water company’s current intake upstream on the Kanawha — a $15 million to $20 million project — was “questionable,” he said having about 120 million gallons of treated water reserves is important should there be another leak.

“That gives us three to five days to handle it,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter approved of the water company’s filter change-out, but said he still smells in his home the licorice scent associated with the chemical. “We’re going to wait it out,” Carpenter said of his drinking the water.

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

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