CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — An independent, taxpayer-funded research team will immediately start testing 10 homes for the chemicals that spilled into the water supply of 300,000 West Virginians.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced the project Tuesday, weeks after his administration and federal officials declared the water usable for all purposes, aside from one advisory for pregnant women to find water elsewhere. Residents, however, continue to question whether their tap water is safe and many are sticking to bottled water for cooking and drinking.
After learning more about the little-known chemicals in those 10 residences, research leader Dr. Andrew Whelton, from the University of South Alabama, plans to sample West Virginia homes "up in the thousands." The price tag could end up in the millions of dollars and depend largely on federal assistance.
The initial study, covered by $650,000 from the state, could start Wednesday and take three weeks. At least one household in each of the nine counties affected will be tested. The group could produce some preliminary findings next week.
State and federal officials previously showed little interest in going into people's homes. Calling it an unprecedented study, Tomblin on Tuesday said people clearly want their households tested.
"There is little to no information pertaining to the fate of these materials once they get inside your house," Whelton said. "What we're going to do is determine the chemical levels at the tap. And that will be a study, the first of its kind in the U.S., on this scale, ever conducted."
With a National Science Foundation grant, Whelton arrived in Charleston three weeks ago to study the chemical's reaction in plastic plumbing pipes. Those results are pending.
Whelton's independent work for the state will likewise study how the chemicals, crude MCHM and stripped PPH, bond with or permeate pipes. It will test taps throughout the homes by running both hot and cold water.
Experts will also examine the baseline created before officials lifted a water-use ban, which lasted up to 10 days for residents and businesses. After the Jan. 9 spill, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quickly created the baseline to determine how much of the chemical people could safely ingest in water. But federal officials based the standard on older animal research.
Last week, CDC officials came to Charleston to reinforce that the water was suitable for everyone and every use. CDC official Dr. Tanja Popovic specifically mentioned pregnant women, a group her agency earlier advised to consider other water sources days after the water-ban was partially lifted.
Whelton said the federal government needs to begin fueling more toxicology research as soon as possible.
"This incident demonstrated what happens when you don't know really anything about the chemical," he said.
The new study also seeks to figure out the odor threshold for the licorice-smelling chemical. State and federal decision makers have said the licorice smell lingers well below safe levels for drinking the water or inhaling its fumes.
But five schools temporarily closed last week because the smell was present. A teacher fainted and a student went to the hospital. Whelton said he also became dizzy while working around the chemical in someone's house three weeks ago.
Jeffrey Rosen of Corona Environmental Consulting will partner with Whelton to lead research efforts. State laboratories will not be used, to keep the studies as independent as possible. The research team is using local nonprofits to find 10 homes whose residents want their water tested.
"It is time to let the political officials step aside and let the scientists come in and do the work we need them to do," Tomblin said.
So far, officials have tested at the water treatment plant, schools and various other spots across the affected region.
Tomblin already is asking West Virginia's federal lawmakers to start asking for funding help.
Tomblin said West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre has offered to help pay for some of the studies. But the state hasn't asked for the water company's help.