Don't Drink the Water in West Virginia

By Peter Rugh


Freedom Industries, Inc.

School ended early last Monday for students at three elementary schools and one middle school in Kanawha County, West Virginia. Members of the National Guard and the state departments of environmental protection and health were called in. It was the rapid-response team's third deployment to schools in the county this month.

The teachers said the tap water smelled like licorice candy—a fragrance associated with MCHM (4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol), a coal-extraction chemical that had flooded the water supply for 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties on January 9. Residents of Charleston and the surrounding area live in fear of the sweet scent, and they have grown increasingly bitter.

West Virginia is coal country. More than a million acres of mountain have been blown apart in Appalachia, where the state is situated, in order to retrieve it. Not to mention, West Virginia is plastered with signs extolling the patriotic virtues of the black geological discharge. The signs tout coal as a source of energy independence for the Red, White, and Blue and implore residents to be proud of their natural resources. They frame regulation as an impingement on freedom and a threat not only to the livelihoods of West Virginians but to the country as a whole. Environmentalists have been harassed, beaten, and threatened with their lives for suggesting otherwise.

Meanwhile, local ambulance chasers have launched ad campaigns of their own, appealing to those diagnosed with silicosis, mesothelioma, pneumoconiosis (commonly referred to as Black Lung), and other diseases associated with coal extraction to seek their legal services. It's a sign of the imprint the industry has had on the state's rural communities over the decades. Now, the 10,000-gallon MCHM spill from a chemical storage facility run by Freedom Industries—just a mile upstream from a water treatment plant on the Elk River—has raised questions over how much environmental degradation West Virginians are willing to tolerate in the name of patriotism.

In the immediate aftermath of the contamination, 671 people called poison control, complaining of severe vomiting and diarrhea, rashes and dizziness. The White House declared much of the state a federal disaster area and state troopers were deployed to deliver water.

Five days later, the local water utility declared their product safe to drink. “We are in compliance with all the standards set by the health-based agencies, like the CDC [Center for Disease Control], the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health, and we have been since the 13th of January,” Jeff McIntyre, oresident of West Virginia American Water, later testified at a congressional hearing in Washington on February 2.

But the safety claims have come with a caveat, as illustrated by a note still taped to water coolers at the Charleston airport more than a month after the spill. “West Virginia American Water has announced that our water meets all regulatory standards,” it read, explaining to visitors that the cooler was placed there simply for the sake of their “convenience.”

But there was an asterisk: “Pregnant women and children under the age of three are advised not to drink our local water.”

The trouble is, MCHM is an unregulated chemical, meaning there are no federal or state guidelines demarcating what levels are toxic and what levels are not. To quote the CDC's website, “There should be no MCHM in drinking water.”

To determine a safe does, the CDC relied on independent studies conducted by Eastman Chemical Company, which had manufactured the MCHM in question, but it said that more research is needed.

A second toxic chemical—a compound of propylene glycol phenyl and dipropylene glycol—was also released in lesser amounts in the spill, but not disclosed by Freedom Industries until January 21. Just like MCHM, little is known about this toxin.

At the same congressional hearing at which McIntyre testified, the head of West Virginia's Bureau of Public Health, Letitia Tierney, described the water as "usable," though she admitted that "everybody has a different definition of safe."

Scrambling for some marker of quality control, officials have set limits of one part per million of MCHM for children three years or younger and for pregnant women; they claim that 1.2 ppm is safe for everyone else.

Robert Goodwin, project manager at Coal River Mountain Watch, an environmental group that has been conducting field testing of water in the Charleston area, said samples taken in homes on the January 13 contained one tenth of the official MCHM safety threshold, but it remains uncertain what the long-term effects of ingesting the chemical will be on residents of the poisoned counties.

“It's a scientific experiment to have people drinking this water,” said Goodwin.

West Virginians don't want to be used as lab rats. On January 30 about 60 people protested in front of the statehouse, calling for stricter safety standards. One man, who had traveled to Charleston from nearby Boone County for the rally, attempted to enter the capitol building to show legislators water from his poisoned well. He was denied access by security, who considered the jug of orange liquid he carried a threat.

A fear of the tap has made bottled water a highly sought-after commodity. Locals don't trust their water. They won't drink it, won't wash with it, and won't let their pets or livestock near it, either. On Valentine's Day, supermarket marquees in Charleston advertised bottled water and roses. Local environmental groups are considering conducting epidemiological studies among residents in the affected counties. Everyone has a story.

“My fiancée has several allergies and sensitive skin,” said Michael Withrow, explaining what happened when the couple showered after getting the go-ahead from American Water. “Almost immediately she broke out into a rash and complained of pain in her hands. They were swollen and flush. She spent six hours in the ER. Since then, the licorice odor has decreased, and we are back to taking showers, but we are only taking them every few days. Occasionally, she still has mild reactions.”

Twylla Bays has a 28-year-old daughter with muscular dystrophy who experienced severe bouts of diarrhea in the initial contamination. Now, Twlla said, “I can't bath her at all.”

American Water has continued to bill customers at regular rates since the spill—even for pregnant households and those with small children—though a deduction of $10.25 was made for those who were advised to flush their pipes in January.

Inexplicably, local residents have also said they felt the symptoms of MCHM—rashes, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and retching, along with burning, itchy eyes, and inflamed sinuses (signs of airborne exposure)—days, weeks, even years before the spill was announced. These claims could be based on hypochondria or be unrelated to the contamination. But Freedom Industries has been operating its chemical storage facility since 1986, and the last time federal regulators visited prior to the spill was in 1991. Chemical storage facilities are not regulated by the state of West Virginia at all.

“There could have been many more, smaller leaks before this one that we never learned about,” said Robert Goodwin, of Coal River Mountain Watch. He noted that local politicians have recently “toned down their anti-regulatory rhetoric” and expressed hope that the spill would lead to greater protections for West Virginia's water and air.

Even as damage control continued in the aftermath of the Freedom Industries spill, new catastrophes have begged attention. One hundred thousand gallons of coal slurry spewed from a ruptured pipe into a creek that feeds into the Kanawha River on February 11. Then, last Wednesday, melting snow caused a pond containing coal-mining refuse known as “blackwater” to spill over into a stream in the town of Gary.

“You don't protect the environment after the fact,” Randy Hoffman, with the state's Department of Environmental Protection, told reporters last week, though his office has so far rejected pleas from the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement that it apply stricter regulatory safeguards to the coal industry.

Until regulators step up, disasters will keep coming as certain as the sun will rise. 

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