The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

State News

May 22, 2014

W.Va. regulators open chemical spill probe

CHARLESTON — The state Public Service Commission opened an investigation Wednesday to determine whether the company overseeing the public water supply responded appropriately to a chemical spill in January that contaminated the tap water of 300,000 people in nine counties.

The focus will be on whether the company’s reaction to the spill and presence of a coal-cleaning agent in the Elk River in Charleston was “unreasonable or inadequate,” the commission said in a news release.  

The commission set an evidentiary hearing from Oct. 7-9 in Charleston.

Company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said West Virginia American Water will cooperate with the investigation.

“Our decisions in response to the spill were made in collaboration with various agencies and with the health and safety of our customers as our number one priority,” Jordan wrote in an email. “We are proud of the outstanding work performed by West Virginia American Water and the interagency response team to restore full water service to our customers.”

The Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the state, has ordered the company to provide an account of the actions it took when it became aware of the spill at the Freedom Industries plant along the river, in Kanawha County.

Among other things, it has asked the company to turn over its measurements of MCHM in the water and explain what factors were used in deciding to keep drawing water from the river into its water treatment plant, located 1.5 miles downstream from the spill.

The company has said if the plant had been shut down, customers would have been left without water within 15 minutes to two hours, and it would have taken more than a month to restore the entire system if it had been depressurized. The treatment plant was pumping at near capacity of about 42 million gallons per day on Jan. 9 due to system demand and water main breaks associated with frigid weather.

The chemical spill contaminated 300,000 people’s tap water in nine counties with licorice-smelling water. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued an emergency declaration that told residents to use their water only for flushing toilets and dousing fires. The order lasted four to 10 days, depending on the area.  

Health departments shut down restaurants, hair salons and numerous other businesses that depend on water. Public fear reverberated for weeks afterward, prompting many restaurants to keep cooking with and serving only bottled water. Some still haven’t switched back.

In a survey of 499 Kanawha County adults conducted by the county health department in early April, nine out of 10 respondents said they were using their tap water, but nearly two-thirds of those said they still weren’t drinking it three months after the spill.

The state has estimated that the nine impacted counties took a $61 million economic hit.

The commission said drinking water standards won’t be debated in the investigation because those fall under the jurisdiction of the state Bureau for Public Health.

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