CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Traces of a chemical that spilled into 300,000 West Virginians' water supply remain in water leaving the region's treatment plant, but at levels far lower than what is considered safe to drink, officials from the regional water company said Tuesday.
In multiple water samples from March 21 and 22, the low levels of crude MCHM showed up only after water came in contact with the plant's filters, the West Virginia American Water Co. said in a news release.
The company conducted more precise testing in response to an independent, state taxpayer-funded research team's findings. Using a lab that tested more closely for the chemical, the group WV TAP said it pinpointed crude MCHM traces in one of the first homes in the water company's distribution. However, Elk River water entering the plant's intake showed no traces on the same day, March 18.
"This finding implied that there could be a source of 4-MCHM in the water treatment facility," a WV TAP news release said Tuesday.
Company president Jeff McIntyre said it's not unexpected that trace chemicals caught in filters could remain in water leaving the plant. The company plans to start changing its filters next week.
Last month, McIntyre told state lawmakers that the existing filters are fine, but would be replaced due to perception issues. Changing the 16 filters will cost more than $1 million, company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said Tuesday.
The company's news release indicated that in its tests, it found chemical levels at its plant that are 2,000 times lower than federal officials say is safe to consume in water, and 20 times lower than the state's previous detection limits. The company said a laboratory considered the final numbers estimates, since they were too low to quantify.
"This new round of sampling and testing demonstrates the ability of laboratories to test and report at levels lower than previous rounds of testing," McIntyre said in a news release Tuesday.
Andrew Whelton, a University of South Alabama researcher and one of WV TAP's leaders, said Tuesday that any chemical influence from water flowing out of the plant could delay cleaning systems in people's homes.
Whelton also said it could explain the chemical smell that lingers from some taps. Officials have said the licorice smell is noticeable well below levels deemed unsafe to consume in water. A separate WV TAP study bolstered the claim.
The Jan. 9 chemical leak from Freedom Industries in Charleston contaminated tap water across nine counties for up 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 provided $762,000 in grants for WV TAP for a series of projects. The group tested 10 homes for crude MCHM and stripped PPH, which was mixed into the Freedom Industries tank that leaked. The team plans to unveil findings Friday morning at West Virginia State University. A larger study that could include hundreds or thousands of homes would need federal funding, Tomblin has said.
On Monday, experts related to WV TAP will review the federal standard used to lift a dayslong water ban in January. Based on limited animal research, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection established a 1-part-per-million chemical safe level for drinking water quickly after the spill.
The team also assembled all the existing research it could on the little-known chemicals that spilled.