CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Water being distributed from West Virginia American Water's Elk River treatment plant contains what the company called "trace amounts" of the chemical MCHM, according to new test results made public Tuesday following questions raised by the independent scientific team investigating the impact of the Jan. 9 leak at Freedom Industries.
The testing of samples taken Friday and Saturday showed levels of the chemical between 0.42 parts per billion and 0.60 parts per billion in water that had completed various stages of filtering and treatment. Those levels are far below the 1-part-per-million health "screening level" devised by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But outside experts have strongly criticized the CDC's work.
In a prepared statement, West Virginia American said the concentrations found "are so low that they are considered estimates by the laboratory because they are too low to be quantified."
West Virginia American conducted the additional testing - and sent it to a different lab located out of state - at the request of the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, a team of outside experts hired by the Tomblin administration to examine the chemical leak's impacts and government responses to the incident.
Andrew Whelton, a University of South Alabama environmental engineer who is co-leading the WVTAP effort, said the new test results are important, despite uncertainties about the exact concentrations being reported.
"I don't know that it's as critical that we can't nail down the exact concentration as it is to know that [the chemical] is present," Whelton said. "When you're trying to decontaminate a water system, you want to remove all of the contaminated water."
Word of the new tests first came Tuesday morning, in a prepared statement in which the WVTAP said that separate sampling on March 18 found a level of 4-MCHM - one component of the Freedom leak - that was greater than 0.5 parts per billion but less than 1.0 parts per billion in the tap water of a home located near West Virginia American's Elk River treatment plant. Testing that same day - using a method that would detect levels as low as 0.5 parts per billion - did not detect the chemical in Elk River water entering the treatment plant.
"This finding implied that there could be a source of 4-MCHM in the water treatment facility," a news release from the WVTAP team said.
Whelton's group is scheduled on Friday to release the findings of its initial water testing at 10 homes across the region, aimed at figuring out if MCHM or other chemicals from the spill somehow remain in the water system or have become absorbed by home plumbing systems. The WVTAP has scheduled a public meeting from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Ferrell Hall Auditorium at West Virginia State University in Institute to release those results.
But the new home testing result made public Tuesday was not part of the 10-home survey, and was taken to help WVTAP scientists develop additional background on conditions in the Elk River. The samples were taken by the West Virginia National Guard and sent to the WVTAP's partner laboratory, Eurofins, in Lancaster, Pa., for analysis.
After receiving positive results for MCHM on March 21, the WVTAP team asked West Virginia American Water to conduct additional sampling before, within and following the company's treatment plant. The water company did so, and those results were released early Tuesday afternoon.
The water company said multiple samples were collected at various stages before, during and after the water treatment process. Those stages including raw water from the Elk River, water that has been settled in the plant's clarifiers, filtered water and finished water that had completed all stages of treatment. Seven sets of samples were taken two hours apart at six different points, for a total of 42 samples, the water company said.
The testing did not find MCHM in raw water entering the plant or in settled water, but did detect the chemical in 10 of 14 filtered samples and in six of seven finished water samples, according to a summary of the results included in West Virginia American's news release.
"It is not unexpected that MCHM effectively captured in filter material may show up in trace amounts in water leaving the plant," West Virginia American President Jeff McIntyre said.
McIntyre noted that the company had committed to changing its carbon filters, and that the process for that was set to begin on April 1.
Just last week, though, McIntyre had told the Gazette that the plant's filters "have not been impacted" by the chemical leak and were being changed only because of a public "perception" that they needed to be changed.
The WVTAP project was launched last month by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin amid significant public pressure over concerns about lingering and long-term impacts of the leak from the Freedom Industries chemical tank farm along the Elk River, just 1.5 miles upstream from the water company's regional plant intake.
Previously, state government officials had tested water only at West Virginia American's Elk River plant, and at public locations such as fire hydrants and schools. Whelton's research aims to figure out if something about different sorts of plumbing systems has caused MCHM or other spill chemicals to be absorbed into those plumbing systems, and periodically re-released into residents' drinking water.
In its news release Tuesday, the WVTAP team provided MCHM water sampling data that included information on detection of the chemical at far lower concentrations than state officials and the water company have previously been providing to the public.
State officials and the water company have trumpeted the "non-detect" results from periodic tests that would detect and report chemical concentrations as low as 10 parts per billion and, starting in late February, as low as 2 parts per billion. In early March, for example, West Virginia American Water issued a news release that announced all of its testing results were below the 2-part-per-billion level that labs were reporting.
"Since Feb. 14, we have worked with laboratories to test down to 2 ppb or less of MCHM, and as of Feb. 25, levels of the chemical are below this non-detect threshold throughout the water distribution system," McIntyre said. "More than 30 employees from American Water subsidiaries in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois have worked tirelessly with our West Virginia employees to flush approximately 2,000 small dead-end water mains in the system. Now that we no longer have detectable levels of MCHM throughout our distribution system and have assisted Queen Shoals PSD to also achieve this in their system, we have concluded our systematic flushing operations in the Kanawha Valley."
When Tomblin lifted an official "state of emergency" on Feb. 28, the formal proclamation doing so noted that testing of the water company's distribution system "indicates that the contaminants are presently at non-detectable levels below 2 parts per billion" at the treatment plant, hospitals, schools and other locations.
Testing for extremely small concentrations of chemicals can be very difficult, and, generally speaking, the lower the levels that are being detected, the less confident scientists are in whether the concentrations shown on lab results are the true concentrations.
Previously, state officials and the water company have been giving the public data about one detection level, called the reporting limit or the minimum reporting limit, or MRL. This is considered the lowest concentration at which a substance can be detected in a sample and its concentration can be reported with a reasonable degree of accuracy and precision.
Another number chemists use is called the method detection level or method detection limit, known as the MDL. This is the value at which a laboratory can theoretically differentiate a value from zero. This means the chemical was detected by the laboratory, but the exact value of how much chemical was present could not be determined.
For example, when the state was reporting to the public test results down to 2 parts per billion of MCHM, that was the laboratory's MRL. The MDL for those tests was 0.8 parts per billion and, later, as testing improved even more, 0.4 parts per billion, officials have said. The public, though, was only being given the MRL results. So if a laboratory detected somewhere between 0.4 and 2.0 parts per billion, the only results made public were the "non-detect" results for the 2.0 ppb MRL.
Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said the state's contracted laboratory was providing state officials only with the MRL results, and was not providing the MDL results. Messina said lab officials expressed concerns about "the accuracy of readings" at the MDL, including "the potential for false positives."
"The state has consistently sought results that are accurate and reliable, and has consistently shared all such results with the public," Messina said.
Whelton has said that Eurofins, one of two labs being used by the state-funded but independent WVTAP project, has an MRL of 1 part per billion and an MDL of 0.5 parts per billion. The home results reported in Tuesday's news release indicated some level of 4-MCHM found in the tap water above the 0.5 ppb MDL, but below the 1 ppb MRL. Whelton said the WVTAP will continue to provide the public with both sets of results for all of its testing.
"Certainly, knowing if the chemical was present below the MRL but above the MDL is important information when interpreting chemical analysis results," Whelton said in an email message. "While chemical presence or presence/absence information is not quantitative, it can provide information about whether the chemical is present at all."
In an interview, Whelton added, "It's important to define what 'non-detect' means. 'Non-detect' means that the instrumentation and the methods used could not detect anything in the water. That doesn't mean it's not in the water."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.