Community members from Paden City, West Virginia, heard from federal and state officials Thursday about an ongoing investigation into the city’s contaminated water supply.
The small community, located along the Ohio River in Tyler and Wetzel counties, has faced years of contaminated water from a chemical commonly used in dry cleaning called Tetrachloroethylene or PCE.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers PCE to be “likely cariogenic”. Studies have linked exposure to an increased risk of cancer, reproductive and developmental effects and neurological impacts.
During a virtual public information meeting Thursday evening, EPA officials confirmed PCE has been present in the city-run water system for at least a decade at varying levels — sometimes above federal drinking water standards.
PCE was first detected in Paden City in 2010. The city installed three air strippers to filter out the chemical. In 2018, one of the strippers failed and the city began recording levels of PCE above the federal maximum contaminant level for PCE at 5 parts per billion.
Then in the fall of 2019 another air stripper failed. It was repaired in 2020, however officials recorded a PCE level of 21 ppb in November 2019. Earlier this year, city officials alerted residents of the high levels of PCE in their drinking water, prompting some residents to organize bottled water handouts and begin conducting a local health survey of residents.
In May, a new treatment plant was installed. Meredith Vance, acting director of the environmental engineering division for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, said sampling conducted since the plant was installed has shown no detectable levels of PCE in the water. Monthly testing will continue for the next year, and under federal law, quarterly sampling will continue indefinitely.
While water leaving the city’s treatment facility may be clean, EPA’s investigation so far has identified widespread PCE contamination stemming from Bandbox Dry Cleaners, which closed in 1975.
The agency has been conducting its assessment since 2018 at the behest of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, which asked for help identifying the source of contamination in the city’s four public wells.
EPA began taking water and soil samples in January 2020. Connor O’Loughlin, EPA site assessment manager, said it appears there is a 63-acre area of contaminated groundwater that connects the dry cleaner to the four wells used by the city for drinking water.
A second phase of the investigation is set to begin this summer. EPA will further look at two other dry cleaners — Budd’s Dry Cleaners and the Rockwell Dry Cleaners — as possible sources of contamination and whether the chemical is traveling up from the soil into people’s homes in vapor form.
Data being collected by EPA will also be used to determine if the site should be listed on the Superfund National Priorities List.
The bulk of the questions posed to officials during the information session centered around whether the PCE contamination in Paden City has harmed residents’ health.
The door-to-door health survey conducted by a group of concerned citizens has unearthed self-reported clusters of cancer, ALS, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, as well as neurological symptoms.
Lora Werner, regional director for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal public health agency, said based on the data that the agency had, it appears unlikely that the levels of PCE in the city’s water were high enough to have harmed residents.
“Based on your situation, what we know about those levels, these do not seem high enough to have actually caused health effects for community members. So that's that's the good news,” she said. “Again, we have to caution that there's a lot we don't know, but from what we do know that's what we conclude.”
That did not sit well with some attendees. Werner referenced one comment submitted in the virtual session that noted it was “painful” to hear her say that it was unlikely the contamination was linked to health problems given the level of illness among the community.
She noted while health studies like the one the community has conducted can be helpful, the data collected is not rigorous enough to be used by epidemiologists to pinpoint whether exposure to a chemical caused illness.
“I do really want to strongly point out that there is a lot that we don't know about what causes people illnesses,” Werner said. “I don't want to give a sense of certainty that we don't have, but we do our best with the information we do have and we extrapolate from those occupational and animal studies and to try to make conclusions when we can.”