News Feature | February 18, 2014

West Virginia Water ‘Usable' But Safety Not Guaranteed

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Experts stopped short of issuing clear cut assurances that tap water in West Virginia is safe to drink during a hearing with House lawmakers on last week.  

"One month after a chemical spill contaminated water for 300,000 West Virginians, health officials testifying before a congressional panel hedged on guaranteeing that the water is safe to drink," the USA Today reported

One official preferred the word "usable" to the word "safe."

"Everybody has a different definition of safe," said Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, in the report. "I believe the water, based on the standards we have, is usable."

Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, saw certain questions as tough calls.

He "told the panel it's difficult to say what levels are safe because the chemical involved has drawn so little study," the report said. 

West Virginia American Water sent its top official Jeff McIntyre to testify. He told lawmakers "that the water is in compliance with all safety standards -- and that he doesn't set those standards," the report said.

The company responsible for the spill, Freedom Industries, did not show up for the hearing, according to the Huffington Post. The absence miffed lawmakers. According Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Freedom Industries chose not send someone "to answer for what [the] company has done to the people of West Virginia. And I find that extremely telling."

Ever since the spill last month, ripple effects have been seen across the country, in Washington and beyond. 

Prominent lawmakers reacted to the spill by writing new legislation. Democratic Senators Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin introduced a bill to prevent future spills, Reuters said. "The bill streamlines oversight of chemical facilities and is designed to make sure factories are properly inspected by state officials and that proper response procedures are in place for accidents," the report said.  

The damaged also spread beyond West Virginia, afflicting water systems hundreds of miles away. For instance, Cincinnati, OH, water authorities "shut down intake valves along the Ohio River to protect the city's drinking water" from the chemical spill, according to the Associated Press. 

The chemical involved in the spill—MCHM, which is used for coal-processing—had "shown up in the Cincinnati area," NBC News reported. In subsequent days, officials announced that the chemical had moved on. They reopened their water-intake valves on the Ohio River, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

For more congressional news, check out Water Online's Drinking Water Regulations And Legislation Solution Center

Image credit: "West Virginia National Guard," © 2014 The National Guard, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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