Kanawha students at 2 schools dismissed early over water

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By Mackenzie Mays and Rachel Molenda
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As parents picked up their children from Midland Trail Elementary School and Riverside High School on Wednesday morning, they wondered -- some angrily -- why school officials would flush the school's water pipes while students are in the building.

"Flushing it while our students are coming to school or are at school is a lack of concern for their safety," said Amanda Legg, whose daughter, Riley, is a second-grader at Midland Trail.

Students at the two Belle-area schools were sent home early Wednesday after several people reported feeling nauseated and dizzy. Workers were re-flushing the pipes at the two schools after students and staff reported a strong licorice odor -- the smell associated with the Jan. 9 chemical leak from Freedom Industries into the Elk River in Charleston.

A Riverside teacher -- who fainted during the flush -- and one student were transported to a local hospital, while several other students who complained of lightheadedness and burning eyes and noses were released to their parents, according to State Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares.

Lora Young, head cook at Midland Trail, said she felt dizzy and faint all morning, but declined transport to a hospital.

"I was going to go ask the secretary what was going on, and I come out the cafeteria door here, and I almost passed out," Young said. "I just don't think people are taking the inhalation of these fumes as serious as they should be. I think if I'd have went down there, they would think 'Oh she's just wanting to slap a lawsuit or something on somebody.' That's the main reason I didn't go [to the hospital.]"

Kanawha County Schools Maintenance Director Terry Hollandsworth said they had hoped to finish the flushing process before students got to school in the morning, but "unfortunately that didn't happen."

Kristina Nelson -- a cook at Midland Trail, who also has a child who attends the school -- said she was not happy with officials' response to the schools' water issues during Wednesday's news conference at the Capitol, and that while schools have been advised to only use bottled water, things may not be as safe as they appear.

"On Monday, when the school got the call that the health department was coming, they had the janitors running to the water spouts [to cover] them up. People were told that they had only been using the water for cleaning but what really was happening was that they had been using the water for brushing teeth, washing hands and playing in the water table," Nelson said. "When the news came to the school... only the principal was allowed to speak. They didn't want us to show the camera the water, but the head cook got the reporter's attention and showed them."

Nelson had her daughter's pediatrician fax a note to the school in order to make sure she was not allowed to be around the water because she had seen other children use it.

"It's such a big mess and makes no sense in why they want to lie. As a parent I am especially worried because nothing is being taken seriously," she said. "I don't understand if they say it is safe, why is all this happening? We all just want answers and want to feel safe sending our children to school."

Christina Ramsey, a Midland Trail parent, said a call she made to the county Board of Education about the water situation was brushed off, and that flushing the waterlines while students are there is "a bunch of crap."

"I said, 'What about the odor?' Some of the kids are more susceptible than others," Ramsey said. "He was like, 'If there's an odor, we'll stop. They should be done by now.' That was at 8:30."

While county and state officials -- including Phares during Wednesday's news conference -- attributed the re-flushing of the school's systems to a water line break unrelated to the chemical leak, school and health department officials told the Gazette on Monday that the systems were being flushed because of odor complaints.

Riverside High School Principal Valery Harper said the health department was contacted when she returned to school on Monday after the weekend break and there was a strong licorice odor present as well as an oily substance noticeable in the water.

Despite that, Phares said, "This last flushing was not due to the [Crude MCHM], but it was in fact due to the fact that there had been a broken water line out here."

Kanawha County Superintendent Ron Duerring said the discoloration of Midland Trail's water was because of a water line break in the area, but the flushing process was for both issues.

"There had been some things about odor, however, there was also the water break at the same time," Duerring said. "Once the water thing was straightened out... we went in to do the flushing."

While Phares said the flushing process was started as early as 6 a.m., several RHS students said the process did not begin until after class had already started.

RHS student Jordan Shanklin said while she was in science class, four sinks were being flushed at the same time, and there was "a very strong smell."

"While they were running [the sinks], that's when a teacher passed out because of the fumes. They pulled us into the gym because of the teacher passing out. They didn't want us around it," Shanklin said. "They closed the whole school down and we [weren't] allowed to go anywhere in it but the gym. I heard a student passed out on the sidewalk after they let us out."

Students Rachel Daw and Sam Neil said the flushing process started during second period, and an announcement was made over the intercom advising teachers to go through the flushing protocol, alternating hot and cold water.

Midland Trail librarian Katie Kidd said water fountains and faucets in the school were running when teachers and students arrived around 7 a.m, and the school smelled of black licorice. Doors and windows were opened, but monitored so that no one could get in, she said.

"They'd been running all morning long," Kidd said. "They had been flushing all morning when students were in the building."

Last week, six area schools were also ordered to re-flush after Crude MCHM was detected. Those schools were closed, flushed, re-tested and cleared to reopen for class.

Riverside and Midland Trail are scheduled to be closed Thursday so the flushing process can continue. Kanawha County students have attended a total of less than two weeks of school in the past month and a half, due to the water crisis, inclement weather and Christmas Break.

Phares said schools would not be re-opened until "non detect" levels are reported.

"It seems like we've lost this. We've got to trust each other," Phares said at the news conference.

The Kanawha County Public Library's branch at Riverside, which is in the high school, is closed Thursday.

Vic Sprouse, a candidate for the county Board of Education, took to social media on Wednesday to address the school system's response to the chemical spill, which he called "shrouded" and "lackadaisical."

"How are kids allowed back in school and then, low and behold, all of a sudden, schools pop up with traces of the chemical? Were the schools not tested prior to opening? Were they not tested regularly since?" Sprouse said. "This response is similar to responses on school closures or anything really that the central office is questioned on -- trust us, Dr. Duerring is handling it, no more questions please."

Dr. Tanja Popovic, director of the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Environmental Health said Wednesday she could not countenance the reported illnesses at the two schools with the low test levels of the chemical recorded in testing.

"It's very hard for me to say now that these symptoms are associated with MCHM when the levels are non-detectable," she said.

Popovic also went to lengths to say that the water was OK to use, but said that the CDC avoids using the term "safe."

"One question that keeps coming up and the governor just stated it and put it out there is, 'is your water safe?' What I can say is that with all the scientific evidence that we have, with everything that numerous people have worked on so far, I can say that you can use your water however you like," Popovic said.

After the news conference she clarified further, comparing drinking water to flying on an airplane.

"We're not really talking about whether water is safe, we're talking about is the water appropriate for use given the information we know about MCHM," Popovic said. "The difference is that nobody can say with absolute certainty something is safe. As I said, is flying safe?

"We really just don't use the term safe because that does not well describe what we can do with the information that we have."

Staff writer David Gutman contributed to this report.