- Associated Press - Friday, March 28, 2014

INSTITUTE, W.Va. (AP) - Chemical traces were found in a sampling of West Virginia tap water more than a month after a spill into 300,000 people’s water supply, though at levels deemed low enough to be safe, a taxpayer-funded research group said Friday.

In each of the 10 homes sampled Feb. 11-18, the chemical remnants were generally 675 times less concentrated than the federal government’s threshold for safe drinking. The crude MCHM appeared at levels lower than previous state testing could even detect, the independent researchers said.

The benchmark for safe levels of MCHM were established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January based on limited animal research.

The results revealed Friday at West Virginia State University weren’t surprising, given findings earlier in the week.

The group, WV TAP, discovered that one of the first homes in the water company’s distribution contained low levels of the chemical on March 21 and 22. West Virginia American Water responded with its own tests, and found the chemical was leaving its plant’s filters at a level about 2,000 times less than the CDC’s safe drinking water mark.

“It implies that there’s a constant source that has been there since the incident began, distributing MCHM into the distribution system,” said Andrew Whelton, a University of South Alabama scientist and project co-leader.

Researchers say it explains why some people still catch whiffs of the chemical’s sharp black licorice scent, which enveloped the Kanawha Valley for days. According to an odor study the group conducted, the chemical smells at levels far lower than officials say are safe to drink in water.

The Jan. 9 chemical leak from Freedom Industries in Charleston spurred a tap water-ban across nine counties for four to 10 days. Residents have remained concerned with the quality of the water supply and have been slow to regain confidence in the officials tasked with protecting it.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin reacted by shuffling $762,000 in state money toward the project, nicknamed WV TAP, which includes in-home sampling, smell tests, a review of previous research and critiques of the level declared safe to consume the chemical in water.

West Virginia American Water will begin replacing its 16 filters Monday, a process that will cost more than $1 million and may take eight weeks or longer, spokeswoman Laura Jordan said. Only two of their 16 filters can be changed each week while maintaining water service. The company says previous tests didn’t detect the chemical, since they couldn’t trace such small amounts.

West Virginia American Water has also maintained that changing the filters deals with a public perception problem, not a practical one.

Michael McGuire, a WV TAP scientist from Santa Monica, Calif., said the filter issue could prompt national security discussions. McGuire said it raises questions about the need for more requirements to replace filters that are contaminated.

“We are trying to start a conversation with the drinking water community, not with the (Environmental Protection Agency), to see if indeed we might advocate for some regulation in that regard,” McGuire said after Friday’s event.

The group found no evidence in the homes of stripped PPH, another little known chemical mixed into the spill. Nor did researchers find any harmful substances when the chemical breaks down.

The scientists cautioned that the 10-home study isn’t meant to be the standard across all nine affected counties. Jeffrey Rosen, a project co-leader from Massachusetts, suggested conducting another slate of tests in about 630 homes, which would cost millions of dollars. But currently, no money is available for a larger sampling effort. Tomblin has said more federal money would be needed.

At a closed WV TAP meeting Monday, a group of independent experts from across the world will reassess the federal safe drinking water standards for the chemical.

The WV TAP group officially concludes its work May 15 with a wrap-up report, which will include recommendations.

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