DEP's Study on Prenter Critically Flawed; Citizens' Outraged

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Residents, community activists and independent scientists are outraged at the conclusions presented in the WV DEP’s recently released study on well water contamination in Prenter, WV. Despite overwhelming evidence documenting contaminated water in numerous homes and reports from independent scientists showing toxic levels of heavy metals, the WV DEP has declared Prenter’s water conclusively safe to drink. This study, which has serious implications for Prenter’s residents, has proven to display a blatant disregard for accuracy, inappropriate methods, and a lack of regard for the health and well being of West Virginia residents. Additionally, findings are contrary to those of numerous independent scientists who have concluded that the water in the Prenter area is not only contaminated, but that the mining activity of Massey Energy, now Alpha Natural Resources, has directly lead to the contamination of drinking water in Prenter.

As evidenced by the DEP’s near immediate “clarification” issued after the release of the Prenter study, the work contracted by the DEP is of incredibly poor quality. First, the DEP study concluded that none of the residents in Prenter had water tests that exceeded the Primary Drinking water standards, thus concluding that the drinking water was safe. This, however, was found to be inaccurate. The DEP both failed to notice a large lead result in their own data and completely excluded the finding from their analysis. This flawed analysis was not an isolated occurrence. The DEP erroneously stated maximum beryllium standards, leading to inaccurate conclusions about contamination levels of water samples from valley fills and raw slurry. Additionally, the study misnamed a community in Prenter as “Nolan” instead of Nelson. Unfortunately, errors like this only point to larger problems with the report.

The report completely neglects to cite any medical literature backing up their claims of the water’s safety, ignoring significant medical research into the health effects of the iron, manganese, total dissolved solids, and hydrogen sulfide gas found in people’s homes. This study cites generic works on groundwater hydrology, including a paper studying a largely flat region in northwestern Pennsylvania from 1963, and does little to understand site-specific groundwater flow dynamics. Their slim list of 19 references is mostly composed of textbooks, fact sheets, and generic papers covering large regions.   

The report also suffers from serious logic flaws, the worst of which concerns sulfates and “rotten egg” odors.  They accurately point out that the odors are caused by bacteria that convert sulfates into hydrogen sulfide to produce energy. The authors then express surprise that the water tested low for sulfates in homes where residents reported strong odors and conclude these homes are not mining impacted due to low sulfates.  However, the explosive growth of these bacteria and the high levels of hydrogen sulfide gas in residents’ homes clearly indicate that a large amount of sulfate was in the water before being metabolized by the bacteria. This flaw in analysis by the DEP suggests that they do not understand the basic biology occurring in this environment.

This sloppy science begs the question, what else did the DEP miss, mislabel, or ignore all together?

The problems with this study are rooted in inappropriate methods. The DEP’s findings are based the single testing of only 33 wells in a community with hundreds of households that expands over 35,000 acres. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it is widely known that there is a highly variable nature of groundwater in WV. Families have documented that their well water will run black or red one day and clear the next. If water entering a home is toxic even a few days of the year, it can still have significant implications for the family living there. The variability of groundwater in the region is not accounted for in the DEP’s one time sampling method. Additionally, the DEP’s own study claims that, “water quality within the study area is highly variable” due to local geology. This means that over the spatial extent of the study area the quality of water is likely to have a wide range. To declare someone’s water safe on the basis of a single test with such a small sample size is negligent.

The study is also irresponsible in its lack of regard for the health and well being of West Virginia residents. The report completely dismisses the serious health problems throughout the community and downplays the impacts of findings of contaminated water. People in Prenter report: their water running red (from extremely high concentrations of iron) and black (from high concentrations of manganese); overpowering smells of hydrogen sulfide gas; extreme staining on their appliances, clothing and body; corrosion of appliances; and the very serious health problems throughout the community.  Common sense tells us that none of these things are normal, especially given that independent scientists have already confirmed the community’s concerns about their water. The question the DEP should have tried to answer is not “Is the water contaminated?” but instead “when, how, and by who was the water contaminated.” The residents of Prenter, and the people of WV deserve better.

Sadly, this is the quality of work we have come to expect from the DEP.  When given a mandate by the State Legislature in 2007 to study coal slurry injection, how it migrates underground, and its effects on surface water, groundwater and public health, they could give no meaningful answer to any of those questions after 3 years of study.  The only thing they could state conclusively was that their regulation of the practice was so inadequate that they had to declare an immediate moratorium on any new injection permits.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely solely on the DEP on this issue.  The US EPA documented slurry injection contaminating water supplies back in 1984.  A host of independent experts have thoroughly documented slurry injection contaminating the wells in the Rawl area of Mingo County, WV.  Recently disclosed reports from Dr. Yorem Eckstein of Kent State University and Dr. Scott Simonton of Marshall University both confirm slurry contamination of wells in Prenter.  Even the DEP documented at least two cases of slurry contamination of wells in the 1990’s.

We don’t need any more studies, especially of the quality of this one.  There’s more than enough evidence to invoke the precautionary principle and ban slurry injection.