Three Kanawha schools closed Thursday for water quality issues

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By Shay Maunz and Marcus Constantino
Charleston Daily Mail Staff

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Three schools in Charleston closed early Thursday after chemical odors were detected in the schools' tap water.

Overbrook Elementary in South Hills closed at noon. West Side schools Watts Elementary and J.E. Robins Elementary dismissed at 11:30 a.m. 10 a.m., respectively.

Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said the schools were closed because of a licorice-like odor that was detected in the water supply, the telltale sign of crude MCHM. It was first reported at the J.E. Robins in the school's kitchen.

At Watts it was in a kindergarten classroom. At Overbrook the smell was faint but in the hot water at several locations.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said the county received complaints from 14 schools in all. The other complaints came later in the day, he said, referring further comment to Duerring.

Duerring said a J.E. Robins cook's eyes were reportedly burning after using a dishwasher. The symptom is another indicator of contact with crude MCHM, the coal-cleaning chemical that Freedom Industries spilled into the Elk River last month, contaminating tap water for some 300,000 West Virginians.

The decision to close the schools Thursday was made out of an "abundance of caution, " state Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said. 

"Parents are anxious and apprehensive and rightfully so," she said. "Because of that, (Kanawha County Schools) is trying to do all that they can."

Cordeiro said the other complaints came too late in the day to close school early.

Water at the schools was tested after the first round of flushing weeks ago, and the levels of MCHM were non-detectable. Duerring told the Daily Mail water in the three schools would be re-flushed. He said in a statement Thursday evening that the West Virginia National Guard conducted water sampling at the three schools, and levels of Crude MCHM came back as "non-detect."

"You don't know what to do anymore, you don't know what's right and wrong," Duerring said. "If they get that smell then there's a concern about that odor, and it's better to be safe than sorry."

Duerring said the decision to keep other schools open was made in consultation with health department officials, the Governor's Office, the National Guard and the state Department of Education.

He said cooks are continuing to use bottled water to prepare food, and bottled water and hand sanitizer remain available for students.

Watts Principal Pam Gould said no one touched the water, but a teacher reported smelling the licorice odor after running some tap water.

"A teacher had reported she smelled an ever-so-slight smell in the water, so just to err on the side of caution, (Duerring) decided to send the kids home early," Gould said. "I know she didn't touch it. She just smelled an ever-so-slight odor."

Administrators at Overbrook Elementary School were alerted to the odor after a parent washed her hands in tap water in a school bathroom.

The parent, who asked to remain anonymous, said the smell was "very faint." She mentioned it in casual conversation to a school official, but didn't think it was a safety concern.

When Overbrook Principal Barbara Floren was informed of the odor, she took it seriously. The day before a student and a teacher passed out at Riverside High School after faucets were flushed there Wednesday morning. Riverside, along with Midland Trail Elementary remained closed Thursday because of chemical odors.

"Someone came in and reported they had smelled the licorice smell, so I sent the custodian out to check the rooms and check all the hot water faucets," Floren said. "He went around to the rooms and did about half of them before class started."

Floren said a licorice odor was noted from water coming from the faucets of about half the classrooms. She said the presence of the odor was hit-or-miss, though. For instance, one sink in the kitchen produced the licorice odor from its hot water faucet, while another didn't.

Duerring decided to close the school at noon.

Floren emphasized that no one was sickened.

Floren said a memo from Duerring instructed teachers to allow students to use soap and water rather than hand sanitizer if their parents requested. She was aware of only one parent who made such a request. Overbrook has about 450 students.

Amy Shuler Goodwin, spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said Tomblin and members of his interagency team traveled to the three schools Wednesday afternoon.

"I have traveled to these schools with the governor today and members of our team and they believe they flushed correctly and have received, again, non-detectable levels," Goodwin said. "The governor told the gentleman overseeing the flushing that he feels confident in everything they are doing by following the guidelines, suggestions and training by the county maintenance directors."

Parents had mixed reaction over the early dismissals. The parent who reported the licorice smell at Overbrook Elementary said she "really would have liked them not to close the school today."

She wasn't worried about the odor and felt bad that her mentioning it led to school being let out early.

"Since the kids aren't really near it, I'm just not worried about it," she said. "You just don't smell it when you walk in or anything. I'm sure the kids are fine. Hopefully they'll be back tomorrow."

Amy Hamilton, another Overbrook mom, said she didn't think the board overreacted, but admitted it was frustrating.

"It's the same water at home," Hamilton said. "We're taking kids home to the same water that's in the schools, so I don't think there's really a need to send them home."

Heather Turley, 29, of Alum Creek, has two children at Overbrook and is a student herself in Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College's nursing program. She said she had to leave her classes to pick up her children.

"I had someone calling me telling me 'you need to get down here and pick up your kids,' and I have a major exam coming up," Turley said. "It just kind of hurts us because they're not in school all the time."

Heather's children -- Savannah, 10, and Kayli, 8 -- had mixed opinions.

"I kind of like it because there's probably not going to be any school tomorrow," Kayli smiled.

"I like school a lot, and the water problem is kind of getting on my nerves," Savannah said. "I can't take a shower in it and I have to be careful when I get around water because I can't smell it, and you can't really drink it."

As Heather Williams picked up her 9-year-old son, Michael, from Watts Thursday morning, she showed off scars from a skin reaction she had while washing dishes at a Kanawha City days after the do-not-use order was lifted. The rash prompted her to go to the emergency room.

"I'm about to the point, honestly, that I'm about ready to move away," Williams said. "Thank goodness my brother lives in Poca and he has a well, and my mother lives up in Braxton County and she has a well, so I don't have to worry about that."

Duerring said in a statement a response team would perform random inspections and sampling in county schools.

"We understand that students, parents and teachers remain concerned," he said.

The team will include members of the National Guard, local health officials and county staff members, he said.

Duerring noted that an odor may linger in schools' water, but health officials have said "that does not mean the school is unsafe."

Writer Dave Boucher contributed to this report.