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Some W.Va. residents reluctant to trust water supply after spill

January 30, 2014 at 6:48 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: It’s been nearly three weeks since news first broke of a chemical spill near Charleston, West Virginia. Since then, there have been new details almost daily about the size of the spill, what was leaked, and the risk the accident still poses to the surrounding community.

Jeffrey Brown has our update.

SHAMAYA LEWIS, resident of Charleston, W. Va.: I just want to know, who do you trust?

JEFFREY BROWN: That was a dominant question at Wednesday’s town hall meeting in Charleston, West Virginia. Officials say a chemical spill that fouled the Elk River has dissipated, and they have rescinded the do-not-use orders for some 300,000 people.

But, three weeks later, Shamaya Lewis and others are still anxious.

SHAMAYA LEWIS: Do I trust the water quality specialist that’s been told to call me and I have been continually following up on? I spoke to him again yesterday. Or do I trust you all to go ahead and let my children, you know, bathe and stuff in the water? I’m extremely frustrated.

JEFFREY BROWN: Testimony at a state legislative committee hearing also yesterday did nothing to ease the frustration.

SCOTT SIMONTON, West Virginia Environmental Quality Board: The biggest problem is and my biggest concern is we still don’t have a good handle on what it is we’re being exposed to or at what concentrations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scott Simonton co-chairs the state environmental quality board. He said traces of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, showed up in water samples from a restaurant.

SCOTT SIMONTON: I can guarantee you that — that the citizens of this valley are at least in some instances breathing formaldehyde. They’re taking a hot shower, this stuff is breaking down into formaldehyde in the shower or in the water system, and they’re inhaling it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Simonton said it could be coming from the spilled chemical MCHM used in coal processing. His testing was funded by a law firm representing businesses suing over the accident.

The state public health commissioner quickly denounced the claim as — quote — “totally unfounded.” She issued a statement saying: “The only way possible for formaldehyde to come from MCHM is if it were combusted at 500 degrees.”

Back at the town hall, the local health officer said, whatever the cause, he is seeing effects.

DR. RAHUL GUPTA, Kanawha-Charleston Health Department: People at the same time, I’m seeing are having a lot of issues with smell. I’m seeing rashes. I’m seeing diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, asthma triggers, migraines, you name it.

JEFFREY BROWN: If that weren’t enough, chemical plant owner Freedom Industries disclosed last week that another coal processing agent, PPH, was also in the tank that leaked. But officials say the limited amount and toxicity do not pose additional health concerns.