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Public officials don’t yet know potential health effects of W.Va. chemical spill

January 30, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
Ashton Marra of West Virginia Public Broadcasting joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the latest concerns for West Virginians affected by a chemical leak into the Elk River, including whether there could be any hazardous effects from an additional chemical that may have gotten into the water.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The accident is drawing more attention from Congress as well. Next Tuesday, a Senate subcommittee will hold a hearing to learn more from state officials and to examine the safety and security of drinking water supplies.

Ashton Marra is covering the story for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and joins us once again.

So let’s pick up first on this new chemical found in the spillage PPH. There’s a debate over whether it might be harmful or whether there’s enough of it to be harmful. What’s the latest?

ASHTON MARRA, West Virginia Public Broadcasting: What we are hearing so far from state officials about this second chemical is the same thing we heard during the initial leak, that they don’t know enough about this chemical to know what it will do to the human body.

What we have been told is that it was in such a small amount within that tank that, even if the chemical leaked and did make it to the river itself, that that chemical shouldn’t be harmful — it shouldn’t be harmful to the public.

So far, the National Guard, who has been conducting the water testing throughout the distribution system, has said that they have non-detect levels of PPH, not meaning there’s no PPH in the system, but at the level they’re testing for it at, it hasn’t been showing up.

JEFFREY BROWN: And …

ASHTON MARRA: But as to what the health effects are of this chemical, what it could do, we don’t know any of that yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: This dramatic testimony yesterday about formaldehyde, that clearly upset officials there. Right? Tell us a little bit about the background there.

ASHTON MARRA: So, after the commission meeting yesterday, where this information came out, I spoke with our Senate majority leader, who is the chair of that commission.

And he called it disturbing and shocking. Those were the two words he used to describe the information that came out. He’s basically saying, you know, if there is something that the public officials know that they aren’t telling the public, we are putting our health and safety in their hands, and they should be releasing that information, as soon as they know about it.

The entire commission was a little put back. We do have one senator whose wife is pregnant and has a 3-year-old child and has been saying over and over again, I want answers, and I want answers for my constituents.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how is the public reacting to all this? For one thing, are they — are they drinking the water? Are people bathing? What are they doing now?

ASHTON MARRA: I think we saw from your piece that, during the town hall meeting last night, obviously, people were still angry and still distrustful of the system itself and of the officials that are telling them that it’s safe.

But I can tell you, personally, from my experience reporting at the Statehouse with lawmakers, from my personal interaction with colleagues and friends, I can’t think of a single person that is saying, oh, I’m drinking the water, it’s fine, I have been drinking tap water all along.

It’s been three weeks now, and I don’t know of anyone. People are feeling safe enough to bathe and to do dishes and to wash their clothes. But nobody that I have heard of yet feels safe enough to drink it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And both in the urban area and beyond into rural areas, is there a clean water supply available to people, or do they have to buy it themselves? How does that work?

ASHTON MARRA: I think, right now, what’s kind of disturbing is that those emergency distribution sites have all been closed.

We heard at the town hall meeting last night a woman from a rural part of the distribution area saying, I work from paycheck to paycheck. I live off of minimum wage, and I can’t afford to continually go out and buy water to provide for my family. Yet, these distribution sites have all been closed.

No one at that meeting was able to step up and say, well, this is the time frame; we will get this started again. FEMA supply seems to have stopped coming into the area, but Charleston’s mayor, Danny Jones, said if there’s enough calls from the public, if you want it, we will find a way to start giving you these water — start giving water out again.

But there’s been no word today as of when those distribution sites or even if those distribution sites will reopen.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ashton, finally, going back to the original spill, what kind of legislative response has there been? And I wonder, given the politics of your state, does this change anything vis-a-vis the coal or chemical industries?

ASHTON MARRA: So far, we are in a legislative session right now, which only happens once a year for us. And our Senate has passed a bill that basically has three parts.

It requires the site owners to identify and locate where all of these chemicals are being stored. The DEP must inspect those sites annually and make sure they’re up to the standards of the bill. And site owners — I’m sorry — water distribution system owners must create what are called source water protection plans, saying that they can deal with a contaminant and provide a secondary source of water for their customers.

As far as changes to the coal industry, this chemical was held at a chemical storage site. It’s used for cleaning coal, but it’s not part of the coal industry. So, I don’t think it changes that relationship, as much as it makes lawmakers take a second look at the chemical industry, especially since it’s so highly populated here in the Kanawha Valley.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ashton Marra of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, thanks so much.

ASHTON MARRA: Thank you.