News Feature | March 4, 2014

Odor, Unanswered Questions Linger After West Virginia Spill

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Weeks after the chemical spill in West Virginia that tainted the water supply, residents have a complaint: The water still smells bad. 

"The odor in drinking water lingering more than a month after a chemical spill in West Virginia is prompting officials to test homes and consider the potential long-term health effects from exposure," Bloomberg Businessweek reported

The state government stepped in as a result of the odor. "After initial resistance, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin named Andrew Whelton from the University of South Alabama to test water from 10 Charleston-area homes to see if chemical residues are still present," the report said.

The findings?  "The first batch of samples was shipped to laboratories, and evidence of the chemical’s distinctive licorice odor has been found in at least one home, Whelton said," according to the report. 

Local authorities are looking into it, as well. "Separately, the local county health commissioner, Rahul Gupta, said his office will begin studying possible long-term health effects of exposure to the chemical used in coal processing, known as Crude MCHM, especially for signs of birth defects or cancer," the report said. 

“There are more unanswered questions for us,” Gupta told Bloomberg Businessweek. “We need to find the long-term consequences from exposure.” 

Problems that arose after the spill have prompted critics to take aim at what they see as a lack of oversight for the water supply. For instance, "water-company officials said they were unfamiliar with the substance and didn't know it was being stored about a mile upriver from a treatment plant," according to the Wall Street Journal.

"That information had been filed with the state annually by the storage facility since at least 2007, but it wasn't shared with the utility, West Virginia American Water, or its state regulator. It also wasn't included in a study completed in 2002, when the federal government required states to perform a one-time assessment of potential risks to the water supply," the report said.  

West Virginia is not the only state with this problem. "Interviews with water-quality and security experts, as well as a review of documents, show that a 1996 federal program known as "source water protection" has led to wide disparities in how well the nation's drinking-water supplies are monitored," according to the Journal

The USA Today editorial board agreed with that take in a commentary. "Under existing law, federal authorities have had to rely on whatever manufacturers choose to tell them about many of the chemicals they produce. Officials don't know how many storage tanks there are across the nation or how many spills have occurred," the report said. 


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