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Officials in Charleston, West Virginia, testified today that the water there is now suitable for drinking and bathing, but nobody seemed ready or willing to call it safe. The testimony came at a field hearing held by members of Congress one month after a chemical in spill in the Elk River tainted the water for some 300,000 people. NPR's Brian Naylor was there today and he filed this report.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It was a month ago yesterday that a chemical used to treat impurities in coal was discovered leaking into the river just upstream from the intake pipe of the West Virginia American Water Company. The leak has since been stopped, pipes have been flushed and the amount of the chemical known as MCHM now found in Charleston's water is said to be less than one part per million. But that's not reassuring to residents here, many of whom say they can still smell the licorice odor that distinguishes MCHM.
At today's hearing at Kanawha County courthouse, Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito asked state public health commissioner, Dr. Letitia Tierney, a direct question.
REPRESENTATIVE SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: Dr. Tierney, is the water safe to drink?
DR. LETITIA TIERNEY: That's, in a way, a difficult thing to say because everybody has a different definition of safe. Am I confident in the science? I believe the water, based on the standards we have, is usable for every purpose and that includes drinking, bathing and cooking.
NAYLOR: Still, people continue lining up at water distribution sites and buying bottled water. And pregnant women are still being advised not to drink the water from local taps. The president of the West Virginia American Water Company, Jeff McIntyre, defended his company's response to the crisis today. Shutting the system down, he said, would have made things worse.
JEFF MCINTYRE: With the polar vortex temperatures that we had and then the thaw that occurred after that, we had numerous pipe breaks. But our system on January 9th would not support any length of shutdown.
NAYLOR: Gary Southern, the president of Freedom Industries, the company that owned the leaky tanks, was a no-show at the hearing. Capito called that an affront. One man who did testify was James Gilpin, one of seven members of the public invited to make a statement.
JAMES GILPIN: This is a major disaster. If our babies cannot drink water and our elderly cannot drink water, then what is there?
NAYLOR: Capito and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia had each introduced legislation calling for greater oversight of chemical storage tanks. Manchin says the spill in West Virginia was a wake-up call for the nation. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.