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Why West Virginia Residents Are Still Uneasy About The Safety Of Their Water

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The Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia.
WAMU/Jonathan Wilson
The Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia.

Just about everyone one of us fortunate enough to live in the so-called ‘first world’ take a lot of what we have for granted. There may be no better example than the water we use to shower, wash our dishes, do our laundry — and drink, of course.

Five months ago, residents in the Charleston area of West Virginia learned exactly how much they depend on clean water after a leaky storage tank at a coal processing facility along the Elk River caused an estimated 10,000 gallons of MCHM — methylcyclohexane methanol — to enter the water supply.

The leak left 300,000 people without safe water for several days, and has been called one of the most serious water contaminations in the country’s history.

The local utility declared the water safe to use and drink months ago, but there are still many questions surrounding the spill and its aftermath. I made the trip out to Charleston to take the pulse of the community.

Return to Normalcy?

In West Virginia’s capitol city, there’s no better place to start than Capitol Street. It runs through the Charleston’s historic shopping and dining district, and while not exactly bustling, if you’re looking for people to talk to, strolling past the turn-of-century shopfronts along Capitol Street on a weekday lunch hour isn’t a bad bet.

“I think things are starting to return to normal — but everybody’s got this stigma — people are still talking about it,” Charleston resident John Ingram says. He’s a musician and a waiter, and says, yes, most people who come to his restaurant still ask for bottled, not tap water.

Carlotta Gee is one of those people whose bottled water consumption has skyrocketed. “I don’t mind taking a shower," she says. "I will not drink the water. I don’t cook with it, I will not make coffee with it — well, wait a minute, I think my husband has made coffee a few times with it — but pretty much we drink bottled water,” she adds.

In my hotel room, among the first things I did was turn on the faucet to check for the distinct licorice smell associated with MCHM. One resident told me it smelled, more specifically, like the licorice candy Good & Plenty. The water looked crystal clear, and smelled…well, it didn’t smell at all.

I also turned on the shower, though only for a quick smell. I never took a shower during my short time in Charleston, probably out of an abundance of caution.

There are few people who’ve had to think and talk more about the state of the water in Charleston and greater Kanawha County than Laura Jordan, the spokesperson for West Virginia American Water, the local water utility. We met in West Virginia American’s main filtration plant, where a series of large rectangular pools of nearly still water flanked us on either side.

The water looks pretty still, but there’s a lot happening in these pools.

Carbon filters at West Virginia American's main filtration plant.

“Each of these filters can move more than 2.5 million gallons of water through them each day,” Jordan explains.

The filters use activated granular carbon, and Jordan says they’re just about the last step in the filtration process. The carbon absorbs the last remaining unwanted chemicals from the water before it gets pumped out to customers, much like a giant Brita filter.

Jordan takes me across the hall into an identical room that is much noisier.

She explains that crews are vacuuming out and replacing the activated carbon in all of the utility’s filters. She says even though West Virginia American is confident that all the MCHM has been flushed from the system, they wanted to go the extra mile to rebuild customer trust.

“Just to give customers that extra feeling of knowing that we have done everything we committed to doing in our response effort,” she says.

“So what you see in this room here is the last of two of sixteen filters having the activated carbon changed out. It’s a very physical process. It takes about a week to do two," she says.

The filter project may be the perfect example of the ongoing challenge for West Virginia American Water, even five months after the Elk River contamination. As hard as the utility has worked to flush all traces of MCHM out of their system, the work of rebuilding local trust in the water supply is likely to linger for a long time to come — and it’s a task that falls almost completely on the utility.

The company responsible for the spill, Freedom Industries, has essentially vanished. I tried, and failed, to get any representative for the company to comment for this story, but local media reports show that Freedom executives have already formed a new chemical company called Lexycon.

“They immediately filed for bankruptcy and essentially abandoned the community,” Jordan says, “and so our company has been the one that’s here every day communicating with customers, and trying to get confidence restored and ensuring that water quality was restored.”

Trying to Get Answers

West Virginia American’s long history in the community has helped the water utility to rebuild good will, but there are still questions about how it handled the crisis — including questions that will be posed by the state’s Public Service Commission.

“The commission has initiated a general investigation,” says Susan Small, communication director for the commission. She says it has the responsibility to look into a specific area: “Did the actions of WVAW in reacting to the spill and the presence of MCHM in the water supply constitute unreasonable or inadequate practices under state law?”

And then there are the health questions.

Kanawha County Health Department director Dr. Rahul Gupta was unavailable for a recorded interview, but says the residents deserve a long-term medical monitoring program, a program for which his department currently lacks manpower or funding.

Little is still known about the health effects of MCHM other than reports of nausea, rashes and diarrhea from those exposed. But Gupta told me his department knows that one in four people in the affected area failed to follow the do-not-use order during the crisis, and 37 percent of those people actually ingested the contaminated water.

People Concerned About Chemical Safety's Maya Nye.

At the state level, West Virginia lawmakers passed new regulations about the inspection of above ground chemical storage tanks following the disaster. Charleston resident and executive director of People Concerned About Chemical Safety Maya Nye says the new laws just scratch the surface of the problems.

“I do think that they are important, and I do want to recognize that — but they are still going to allow the stockpiling of mass amounts of chemicals, and I think that until we reduce those vulnerabilities — communities will still be at risk,” Nye says.

The Act of Forgetting

Nye and her organization are trying to keep the public’s attention focused on those risks, but the passage of time can work against them. “I think that many more people are aware, but the fact that you can no longer smell the chemical in the water, it goes away. People resume their normal lives if you don’t have to smell it or live with it on a daily basis,” she says. “Hopefully lessons have been learned.”

And of course it’s not just people in the immediate area trying to learn from the Elk River disaster.

Our region's Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments sent emissaries to the area back in January, as soon as news of the disaster hit. Lisa Ragain, a principal at water quality consulting firm Aqua Vitae, was part of that team, and she says the biggest lesson she brought home had little to do with the exact effects of methylcyclohexane methanol.

“There is a potential, and actually a large potential for whatever chemical is in your water system may not be known,” Ragain says. “If you don’t know about it, what’s next? How do you get your water system back up and running and how do you make it safe and reliable for your community.”

Back on Charleston’s Capitol Street, Carlotta Gee says the fact that the disaster affected drinking water — something so elemental to our very existence — might actually make it easier for everyone to wash away the memory of what happened at Elk River.

“A lot of people are just going to go back to the way it used to be, just because it’s water; that’s a huge part of life,” Gee says. “I think just like a lot of catastrophes and hard things, people just kind of settle in and choose to forget.”

Music: "Pay Attention" by Bexar Bexar from Haralambos

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