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Claim of tainted water disputed in West Virginia

| Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, 8:00 p.m.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State officials and a water company strongly disputed a scientist's claim on Wednesday that residents were likely breathing in traces of formaldehyde while showering after the chemical spill, saying the chemical that tainted the water supply only produces the carcinogen at extremely high temperatures.

The crude MCHM that spilled into the water supply on Jan. 9 ultimately can break down into formaldehyde, West Virginia Environmental Quality Board vice-chairman Scott Simonton told a state legislative panel. Simonton, who is an environmental scientist at Marshall University, said the formaldehyde showed up in three water samples at a downtown Charleston restaurant as part of testing funded by a law firm representing businesses that lost money during the spill.

State Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Tierney — the state's top health officer — called Simonton's presentation “totally unfounded.”

She said Simonton isn't a part of the interagency team that has been testing water samples. Tierney said her agency is unaware of how Simonton's study was done, including sampling procedures, protocol and methodology.

“His opinion is personal but speaks in no official capacity,” Tierney said.

Simonton, who holds a Ph.D. in engineering, was appointed by the governor to the board that hears appeals on state water permitting and enforcement decisions. He was first appointed more than a decade ago by then-Gov. Bob Wise for his first five-year term.

Tierney said experts who have been assisting the state said the only way for formaldehyde to come from MCHM is if it were combusted at 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

West Virginia American Water called Simonton's opinion “misleading and irresponsible.”

University of Washington public health dean Dr. Howard Frumkin, an environmental health specialist, suggested that officials use caution when interpreting the results of the water tests that Simonton cited, including asking whether the chemical was present before the spill.

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