Is the Water Safe Yet?

A toxic chemical leak, a contaminated water supply, and a long wait for answers in West Virginia.
A worker dismantles Freedom Industries chemical storage tanks. (Tyler Evert/AP)

Robert Thaw was in the woods when he first heard the news. Every Thursday night, the Charleston-based surveyor and his friends take their mountain bikes to the Kanawha State Forest for a long, punishing ride to work off stress and energy from the week. That night, January 9, they emerged from the forest to find a note stuck to the windshield of his friend's truck.

The note was from his friend's wife. "The water company has issued a do not use order. Come home!" it read. Robert loaded his mountain bike into the back of his Jeep Laredo and raced to his house.

While he was on his bike ride, his wife, Laura, an occupational therapist, had been at home rinsing steaks for dinner. First came the robo-call from the water company. On television, West Virginia's Democratic governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, was declaring a state of emergency. A chemical mixture containing something called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol—news anchors stumbled over the name—had leaked into the Elk River less than two miles upstream from a water company's intake site. It was now winding its way through the water supplies of 300,000 people in Charleston and the surrounding nine counties.

"Nobody really knows how dangerous it could be. However, it is in the system," Tomblin said. "Please don't drink, don't wash with, don't do anything with the water."

Laura looked at the steaks for a moment before throwing them in the trash.

She grabbed her purse and went straight to the grocery store. It was a chaotic scene: people grabbing grocery carts and running to stock as much water as they could. Roughly a dozen 911 calls came in that night about people fighting over the water; police were ordered to step up patrols around convenience stores. A long line extended from the back of Laura's store, where employees were handing out everything they had. She spotted her mother-in-law, slipped in line beside her, and got two cases of bottled water. By the time she reached the register, the store had sold out.

Shortly after her husband arrived home, his thoughts turned to showers. A native West Virginian, Robert has a strong independent streak—and his first instinct was to act. He gathered his 14-year-old son, Rob, and drove eight miles back into the forest. Using buckets, they skimmed about 20 gallons of icy mountain water from the top of a creek. They brought it home and staged it in their mudroom. It would be enough, they thought, to get them through the first few days. By then, they hoped that the water company and local officials would know more about the chemical. That they'd have a treatment plan to correct the problem. That they could answer the most important question: When would the water truly be safe?

Uncertainty

Six weeks later, when I visited West Virginia, the brief flurry of national interest in the water crisis was fading. President Obama's State of the Union address had come and gone with no mention of the Americans living without clean water only 350 miles from the nation's capital. National news stories about the crisis were becoming fewer and further between.

But the Thaws had not gone back to using the water. Nor had many of their neighbors. It's impossible to know just what percentage of people were still refusing to use the water, but a month after the spill, Rahul Gupta, the executive director of the Kanawha Charleston Health Department, conducted an informal survey at a community meeting of about 200 people. Only 1 percent were drinking the water.

At water distribution sites—giant tanks the city had driven in from Pennsylvania and left in parking lots—local residents continued to gather throughout the day. Retirees, veterans, moms, and kids with soggy, wet knees hauled Rubbermaid storage bins and Aunt Jemima syrup jugs and iced tea bottles and gas cans—anything that would hold water.

"Very few people who can afford not to are drinking the water," says Gary Zuckett, executive director of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group.

So little was known about MCHM—the chemical that had leaked into the water supply—that it was basically impossible to assess the risks.

"We don't know anything about its chronic toxicity; we don't know anything about the dermal exposure—which is really important because people are not only exposed through ingestion but also skin absorption—and we don't know about inhalation," says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council who studies chemical regulation. "We don't know anything about the effects on developing infants or children or newborns, which is very critical because what it could cause in children could be different from adults. We don't know any chronic effects at all: disease, cancer, long-term disabilities, long-term development, neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity—we don't know any systemic or long-term effects."

A Policy Failure

The site of the spill had once been a Pennzoil/Quaker State diesel terminal, but now the 60-year-old holding tanks on the banks of the Elk River stored chemicals, including MCHM, that are used to help wash coal. Freedom Industries, founded in 1986, was the company that held the MCHM.

The most recent piece of federal legislation to deal with chemicals like MCHM was the Toxic Substances Control Act, a bill passed in 1976. TSCA effectively grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals—MCHM among them—when it was approved. Because these chemicals did not pose "unreasonable risk," they required no testing by government regulators.

But thousands of new chemicals have since come on the market, and others that were used only in small amounts in 1976 are near-ubiquitous now. The only tests available on MCHM were performed on rats and were sponsored by the manufacturer of the substance, Eastman Chemical. (A spokesman for Eastman notes that the tests were conducted by independent labs and that the company isn't planning to sponsor more studies on the chemical.)

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Marin Cogan is a writer-at-large for National Journal.

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