The owner of Vandalia Grille heard unsettling news about his business Wednesday morning. Water samples, taken more than two weeks ago, detected traces of formaldehyde in the water.
"I'm flabbergasted," said Mike Summerlin, the owner of Vandalia. "Amazed, really. I have three kids. I drink this water."
Summerlin had not been drinking the water while a "Do Not Use" order was in place for nine counties in West Virginia. A massive chemical leak discovered Jan. 9 contaminated the drinking water of nearly 300,000 people. Freedom Industries told state officials that approximately 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM and PPH leaked into the Elk River from the company's storage tank farm facility.
In some areas, people were instructed to avoid the water for more than a week. Downtown Charleston was one of the first areas cleared by state agencies.
The owner instructed his staff at Vandalia to use bottled water for cleaning, cooking and drinking even after West Virginia America Water Co. lifted the "do not use" water ban in downtown Charleston.
"People are scared, they're still scared of the water, it's amazing," Summerlin said.
An independent group of researchers took the samples from Vandalia nearly two weeks ago. Scott Simonton testified during a joint legislative committee Wednesday, briefing legislators about the samples taken at Vandalia. Simonton is an environmental professor at Marshall University and a member of the state Environmental Quality Board -- a quasi-judicial body that oversees waste and permitting issues. He was appointed to the board by former Gov. Bob Wise.
The Charleston-based law firm, Thompson & Bailey, hired several specialists, including Simonton, to test the water throughout the system.
"We just got these results yesterday so the formaldehyde that is showing up is a huge cause for concern and goes to our belief that the population here all of us that have been exposed need to be monitored over time," Simonton said.
Several slides revealed results from the group's testing. They took samples from the toilets in Vandalia Jan. 13, and all detected some level of formaldehyde. The tests were analyzed at ALS Group USA, Corp., according to notes used in Simonton's presentation.
"Our concern is what happens once this stuff breaks down," Simonton said.
He explained that methanol, a major component in crude MCHM, has the potential to break down to formaldehyde. The most toxic form of formaldehyde, a carcinogen, is through inhalation, Simonton said.
He hypothesized that while residents had been told taking a shower is safe, they could potentially be at risk while inhaling the water that is turning to vapor through a hot shower.
"The biggest problem is we still don't have a good handle of what we're being exposed to or what concentration," Simonton said.
He later added: "The formaldehyde frankly, personally, has me a little freaked out."
The independent team of scientists the law firm had hired is waiting for the results from dozens of samples across the system. Kevin Thompson is representing Vandalia and others in a class-action lawsuit against several companies associated with the chemical leak including Freedom Industries and Eastman, the manufacturer of crude MCHM.
"Vandalia is the first result we had for formaldehyde," Thompson said. "It made it here and it's not supposed to be in the water."
Thompson said the team grabbed samples from across the system, then sent the samples to "certified" labs. PACE and ALS are the labs listed on the returned test results. He said the water at Vandalia showed levels of formaldehyde testing at 32 parts per billion.
Until more results come back, Summerlin said he plans to move forward cautiously.
"We're going to flush some more, I guess. Just keep on running it through," Summerlin said. "At this point I don't even know what we can do."
Several state agencies jumped to discount Simonton's presentation Wednesday afternoon.
The WV Department of Health and Human Resources released a statement from Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner for the state Bureau for Public Health, hours after Simonton testified before the committee:
"Scott Simonton's presentation to the West Virginia Joint Legislative Committee today is totally unfounded and does not speak to the health and safety of West Virginians," Tierney, who also is a state health officer, said in the statement. "Formaldehyde is naturally produced in very small amounts in our bodies as a part of our normal, everyday metabolism and causes no harm.
"It can as be found in the air that we breathe at home and at work, in the food we eat, and in some products that we put on our skin."
The statement claimed that "subject matter experts" helping West Virginia during the state of emergency say formaldehyde can only come from MCHM if it were combusted at 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tierney cited the World Health Organization, which says formaldehyde is created through the normal breakdown cycle of plants and animals.
West Virginia American Water also issued a statement about Simonton's findings.
"We believe it is misleading and irresponsible to voice opinions on potential health impacts to residents of this community without all of the facts," the statement reads. "Procedures for water analysis are carefully prescribed, outlined and certified.
"West Virginia American Water will continue working with governmental health and environmental professionals and, in conjunction with these professionals, we and public health agencies will make public any reliable, scientifically sound information relating to risks to public health, if any."
The American Chemistry Council's Formaldehyde Panel released the following statement as well:
"Formaldehyde is a ubiquitous, naturally occurring substance produced by every living organism. Studies show that formaldehyde is readily biodegradable and does not accumulate in either the environment or in people. In the environment, formaldehyde is quickly broken down in the air by sunlight or by bacteria in soil or water."
The federal government has developed recommendations regarding formaldehyde.
"The EPA has determined that lifetime exposure to 1 ppm formaldehyde in drinking water is not expected to cause any adverse effects," according to the recommendations listed on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
"The EPA has also determined that exposure to formaldehyde in drinking water at concentrations of 10 parts per million (ppm) for 1 day or 5 ppm for 10 days is not expected to cause any adverse effects in a child."