The Water Crisis Continues: A Voice for West Virginia

What would you do if you were told…

It isn’t safe to bathe in your own home.

You can’t drink your water.

It isn’t safe to cook with water, even if you boil it.

It isn’t safe to brush your teeth.

You can’t wash your hands.

Do not give water to your pets.

Authorities don’t know how long your water has been contaminated.

And no one knows when it will be safe to use and consume water again.

For more than 300,000 West Virginians in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties, these questions became a cruel reality on January 9 when residents began to complain of their water smelling of black licorice. The culprit of this horrendous smell was found in the Elk River, a substance called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which is used in the coal cleaning process. It entered the Elk River about a mile upstream of where the water intake is located for West Virginia American Water Company.

A 35,000-gallon storage tank filled with this chemical was leaking, and had overflowed a contaminant area around the tank run by Freedom Industries. The chemical had found its way over land and through the soil into the river. Freedom Industries could not say when the leak started or how much had gone into the Elk River. The tap water was confirmed as contaminated late Thursday on January 9, and a stop-use warning was sent to Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties. Governor Tomblin issued a state of emergency.

Pure chaos would be an understatement for what then occurred.

All schools, restaurants, and most business were shut down across the counties affected. The people of West Virginia erupted into a state of panic, as anyone else would do under the given circumstances. Bottled water was ripped from the shelves of grocery stores, and the citizens could do little but wait and see what news came next.  Meanwhile, Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the chemical leak, had little to say about the health hazard that the water brought for citizens. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said symptoms of exposure to the water consisted of severe burning in the throat, severe eye irritation, non stop vomiting, trouble breathing, and severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.

The state brought in truckloads of water for citizens to use during the state of emergency, and had distribution centers scattered around the affected counties for people to pick up. Most people didn’t want to go through the hassle of taking their own jugs, standing in line, and hauling them to and from the distribution centers. Some were lucky enough to be able to pay for bottled water. However, many were not as fortunate.

It wasn’t until January 13 that West Virginia regulators began lifting the ban on drinking water, but directed people to flush their pipes first. The flushing process broke the affected counties into zones, and the process took several days for all of the counties to complete. The West Virginia American Water Company didn’t have the right equipment to test for the contamination levels in the water, which hindered the process. Regulators advised pregnant women and children not to drink the water until officials declared it free of any trace of the chemical.

On January 18 everyone was given the all clear to drink the water. However, residents remained skeptical, claimed the lingering licorice smell remained, and continued to show symptoms of the chemical water exposure.

Meanwhile, Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy on January 17. This raised major questions over how the company would be held accountable for the damage done and the contamination of the water supply.

I smell a fishy situation, only this one smells of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.

Citizens have lost trust in their government to fix the poisoned water situation. The pure inconvenience of not being able to cook, drink, or wash with the water from the initial leak until the ban lifted was hard on many citizens. Yet even now, residences are continuing to use bottled water for those everyday tasks for fear of contamination.

Schools in all counties affected were closed for roughly a week and a half during the state of emergency. Since then, schools have been tested for the chemical, and many are continuing to show up as positive.  On February 7, the MCHM chemical was found in the water at George Washington High School weeks after the water had been declared safe to use. George Washington is one of more than a dozen schools affected by the chemical spill. Three schools in Charleston closed on February 6 after chemical odors were detected in their tap water. The head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department said they had received complaints from 14 schools. Some schools are also continuing to use bottled water for daily use, and are not cooking lunches for the children that require water.

The financial burden that this issue has placed on the residents is troublesome. Rather than having access to safe water, they now have to spend money on bottled water for all of their everyday needs for fear of the poisonous chemical that continues to linger. It is to my knowledge that there are very few water trucks providing clean water to the residents since the water has been deemed “safe.”

Residents have also expressed concern about state official’s claims that the water poses “no known health risk” at tested levels of the chemical below 1 part per million. There doesn’t appear to be adequate previous studies to back that up, and people wonder if the officials even know.

I can’t even imagine how women who are currently pregnant have dealt with this situation. It makes me sick to even think about the possible dangers this chemical might have caused. Not to mention the expense of families with babies who now have to drink canned formula due to the contaminated water.

People are even choosing to leave their homes and move because of this chemical spill.

On February 16 the Charleston Daily Mail published an article titled “Doctor says tap water still not safe to drink.”

West Virginia is a beautiful place, one that I lived in and called home for 18 years before going to college. My hometown of Charleston is very dear to my heart, and so are the people who live there. The amount of relatives I have that have been affected by this chemical leak breaks my heart, especially my 80-year-old grandmother who is not in good health. My mother and brother even came to visit me in South Carolina for a few days just so they could take a clean shower.

If this situation does not get resolved or make progress, my beloved hometown will become a wasteland. It will become a place where no one wants to live, raise a family, build a business, or start a career. It will no longer be Wild and Wonderful West Virginia; a name that we pride ourselves on. It will be “Toxic and Uninhabited” West Virginia.

I am so proud to be a West Virginia native. The people of West Virginia are not hillbillies and inbreeds as stereotypes suggest. They are not rednecks and uneducated. They do not all live in “the holler.” They are not toothless, obnoxious, or rude.

The people of West Virginia are incredible people with huge hearts. They are always friendly and kind, offering a helping hand to all those who need it. They are hard working, dedicated, and have great pride in where they are from. They are people to be admired, respected, and adored.

And they are living, breathing, HUMAN BEINGS who are suffering greatly because of their current situation.

The people of West Virginia deserve better than this.