(Photo Courtesy / state of West Virginia)
UPDATE 2/10/14 @ 5:30 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- State lawmakers are calling for action after a devastating chemical spill contaminated the water for more than 300,000 people.
It's the question on the minds of all those affected by the leak, is the water safe? It was an answer no one could give at Mondays congressional committee hearing.
State Public Officer, Dr. Letitia Tierney said, "That's in a way a difficult thing to say because everyone has a different definition of safe."
West Virginia American Water President, Jeff McIntyre added, "I recognize the customers fear associated with the smell of something in their water."
Chemical Safety Board Chairman, Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso said, "the chemical is so very little studied that it's very hard to say if it's safe level." He's talking about MCHM, which up until January was an unfamiliar territory, even to the CSB.
He, along with other expert witnesses, told the crowd Monday morning that only two tests have ever been done on the chemical. What is clear, though, is how the MCHM and PPH leaked into the Elk River. There were two holes, one 10 and one 19 centimeters, in the tank at Freedom Industries.
Moure-Eraso said, "We are going to take samples of that tank and figure out how the corrosion happened and try to make recommendations of what materials should be recommended to build these tanks."
Freedom Industries was inspected by the CSB last October, but the leaking tank wasn't required to even be checked. That's because it contained a chemical labeled non-toxic.
"It wasn't addressed because it didn't contain any hazardous substances, legally defined," Moure-Eraso explained.
It's a chemical that ended up where it shouldn't, changing the lives for hundreds of thousands of people. The leader of the company responsible, was nowhere to be found. He was invited to the hearing, but didn't show.
"Freedom Industries didn't know about the leak, did not report the leak, and did not know how much of the leak happened, that's unconscionable to me," U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said.
The DEP says when they remove the tanks, there may be a licorice smell in the air, but they say not to worry. It doesn't mean it's in the water.
The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing was held at the Kanawha County Courthouse in Charleston to discuss the chemical leak at Freedom Industries on January 9 that contaminated water for more than 300,000.
During the hearing, the President of West Virginia American Water testified, along with the chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management testified. The President of Freedom Industries was invited to attend, but he never responded.
The congressional leaders asked the panel several times during the hearing if the water is safe, but no one would give a clear answer.
"We're below the standards set by CDC, but understand the fear of the community, Jeff McIntyre, WVAW President said.
"Everybody has a different definition of safe," Dr. Letitia Tierney, West Virginia State Health Officer said.
State leaders expressed their frustrations with no clear answer on the water safety.
"No one is going to say it's safe. That's the confusion that we have right now," Senator Joe Manchin said.
Meanwhile, Congresswoman Capito introduced the Ensuring Access to Clean Water Act that would require oversight and inspection of chemical storage facilities and above ground storage tanks.
"Families need to know that the water that comes out of their tap is clean and safe," Capito said. "The chemical spill in Charleston highlighted a number of gaps in existing regulations that must be closed."
The legislation would be required at least every three years for tanks located in source water assessment areas, and at least every five years for other tanks, according to a news release.
Mr. McIntyre testified that WVAW's system would not support a shut down of the water system during the January 9 incident. He urged people to envision a community without water.
McIntyre says the company provides a critical service for fire protection and sanitation. He believes if the water was shut off there would have been pipe breaks all over the system. McIntyre says it could have taken a month to get all the water back on for all communities. He says he believes the company made the right decision.
The Chemical Safety Board showed a picture of the tank where the leak happened. CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso testified they've found two holes, one 19 centimeters and another at 10 centimeters. He also says there appears to be very obvious corrosion of the tank. The board is investigating how that corrosion happened.
"Unfortunately, weeks after this incident the community is still suffering, questions remain unanswered and people are still scared to use the water," Moure-Eraso said. "While there are laws prohibiting polluting to waterways with a spill, there are not really any clear, mandatory standards for how you site, design, maintain, and inspect non petroleum tanks at a storage facility."
The CSB Chairman also testified that it has determined that the secondary containment wall - which was composed of cinder blocks and surrounded tank 396 - provided very little protection from a possible release. Company documents further show that the wall was not lined and that tank 396 rested directly on porous material including gravel and soil.
The panel allowed ten questions from the audience because of the type of incident being discussed. Only seven people took the opportunity to speak. each received two minutes.
Each person talked about the financial burden this water crisis has caused them and their and urged the panel to push for medical monitoring not only now, but in the future to know the health effects of this chemical.
Several people expressed their frustrations and asked for more water distribution in the communities affected until the state knows for sure the water is safe.
The public comment will remain open for 30 days for anyone who wishes to go on the record for this hearing.
An estimated 10,000 gallons of the chemical MCHM leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and tainted the water supply for about 100,000 West Virginia American Water customers in nine counties.
The president of West Virginia American Water is scheduled to testify at the hearing, as is the chairman of the U.S. chemical Safety Board and the director of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The hearing will be streamed live on WSAZ.com.