The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 4, 2014

Health department official offers post-spill suggestions

By Pamela Pritt
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Dr. Rahul Gupta had three recommendations for legislators dealing with the aftermath of a chemical spill that affected drinking water for some 300,000 state residents.

The executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department said local health departments should be involved in rule-making for Senate Bill 373, the legislation passed out of the Senate last week to regulate above-ground storage tanks, Chemical Safety Board recommendations for developing a hazardous chemical release prevention program should be enacted and medical monitoring in all nine affected counties should begin and last as long as 10 years.

“We have been this unwilling partner in a live human experiment,” Gupta said. “What happens to us going forward?

“We need to regain the public trust.”

Gupta also recommended inter-agency cooperation and an “integrated emergency response” between the Departments of Health and Human Resources and Environmental Protection.”

The inter-agency cooperation should extend to local entities, as well, he said. Gupta said he was informed about the spill by a television reporter.

The doctor said “scores” of people were coming to the health department daily with symptoms caused by the chemical MCHM which spilled into the water from a pre-World War II storage tank on the Elk River. Symptoms included rash and eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, headaches and asthma triggers, he said.

Gupta said one of the challenges was a nutrition problem since area restaurants were ordered closed because of the spill, and residents couldn’t use water to cook.

“This was a very tough time,” he said.

The tough time was shared by Jeff McIntyre, West Virginia American Water’s president.

McIntyre said filters at the water plant will be replaced, but that cannot happen until the weather improves. He said he hopes to begin the three-day per filter process in March.

However, McIntyre said he doesn’t believe the filters need to be changed, but that will happen because of the level of suspicion in the community.

“We have to rebuild the public trust,” he said.

He said shutting down the water plant when he learned of the spill “was not that simple.”

The system had a number of burst pipes caused by the polar vortex two days before, and a number of customers had let their water drip to prevent their own pipes from bursting, he said. McIntyre said the increased use caused his company to go from handling 27,000 gallons of water per day to 45,000 to 47,000 gallons.

Storage levels were “negligible,” he said. “Some tanks had barely a foot of water,” McIntyre said.

The system would have depressurized in about two hours, he said, leaving no water for sanitation or for fighting fires.

He said if he had were faced with the same decision today, he would make the same call.

As for a second water intake, McIntyre said the 40-year-old engineering plan called for dual intakes, but they were not approved for construction.

McIntyre said WVAW is eligible to ask for a rate increase in 2015, but he doesn’t plan to do that.

“I’m going to do everything I can to protect customers from rate increases,” he said.

Customers should begin seeing credits on their water bills this week, he said, but customers do need to pay those bills, according to Public Service Commission rules. McIntyre said the company has a number of programs for low income customers.