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?


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.)

Here's what a data sheet on the chemical, provided by Eastman, says. Under the section titled "Hazards Identification": "WARNING! HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED! CAUSES SKIN AND EYE IRRITATION. AT ELEVATED TEMPERATURES, VAPOR MAY CAUSE IRRITATION OF EYES AND RESPIRATORY TRACT." The chemical's LD-50 on rats—the measure scientists use to determine the lethal dose required to kill half of the population of a study—is 825 mg/kg. As for other measures of potential harm—carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity, specific target organ toxicity—the sheet says "no data available." It repeats that phrase 152 times.

Four days after the spill, on January 13, the water company and state officials began instructing residents in certain areas to flush their taps, after which they were told they could begin using the water again. The basis for this decision was a recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—which relied on data provided by the manufacturer. While conceding that "there are few studies on this specialized chemical," CDC said it had "used the available information … to determine how much MCHM a person could likely ingest without resulting in adverse health effects." The verdict was that residents could begin using their water again when the MCHM level was one part per million—roughly half a gallon in an Olympic-size pool.

But CDC also said that pregnant women, "out of an abundance of caution," might not want to drink the water until the chemical was gone from the water supply altogether. And if CDC thought pregnant women shouldn't drink the water, what about their children? To make matters more confusing, not everyone agreed with CDC's recommendation of one part per million. Using the same data that the agency had relied on, Sass came up with a very different calculation—0.025 parts per million.

Even basic facts about the spill seemed hard to come by. At first, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman told the press, "We're confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped." More than two weeks later, Freedom Industries disclosed that the spill was something closer to 10,000 gallons—and that another relatively unknown chemical called PPH had been part of the leak. The contents of PPH, Freedom said, were proprietary. (CDC said that although information on PPH was limited, information provided by the manufacturer suggested lower toxicity than MCHM.)

Meanwhile, people were getting sick from the tainted water—or at least believed they were. In the first nine days after the spill, more than 400 people had turned up at area hospitals with symptoms that included nausea, vomiting, burning eyes, and rashes that looked like sunburn during the coldest months of winter.

"It's your decision," Governor Tomblin said at a press conference on January 20. "I'm not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is, if you do not feel comfortable, then don't use it."

As of February 5, schools were continuing to close following reports of strange smells and symptoms—including, in at least one case, fainting—that they believed was caused by the water. All the while, the water continued to emit a strange odor: a sickly, saccharine licorice scent.

"The fact is," says Gupta, "we are unwilling participants of a live human experiment."

Life Without Water

Six weeks after the spill, Robert Thaw has a new routine. Every other week, he takes a giant 300-gallon storage tank to another water company in a town about 20 minutes away and fills it with water for the family. Before going to bed each night, he goes out and fills four large buckets with water and hauls them inside. At 5:30 a.m., he comes down the steps of his timber-frame home and clicks the knobs on his kitchen stove, heating two industrial-sized pots of water. He waits half an hour until the water is hot before pouring it back into two plastic buckets. Then he carries the buckets upstairs.

For the kids he has rigged up something close to a real shower. Into one bucket, he drops a fountain pump. A cord extends from one end of the pump and plugs into a wall in the adjacent laundry closet; from the other end, a clear plastic hose is strung up to the shower head. He's attached a nozzle to the end of the hose and rigged up the remote control normally used for Christmas tree lights so that his children can turn on the pump without leaving the bathroom. They turn it on to rinse, off to lather, and on to quickly rinse again.

He and his wife have a less elaborate set-up: a clear gallon water jug they sawed the top half off of and punched holes in the bottom of. They scoop the hot water and hold the trickling jug over each others' heads.

Since the spill, his mind has begun to orient itself around a new set of facts. One gallon of water weighs 8 pounds. Each night, when he goes out to the water tank sitting in his driveway and fills four buckets with water, he has to haul 160 pounds of water to the house. His family drinks two gallons of water a day—water they're buying from a delivery service in Pittsburgh. They use 15 to 18 gallons of water for washing and cleaning—water he gets from the neighboring town.

When will the water be safe for their use? And for their children? "There's always this debate you're having with yourself—how long will this go on? Is this worth it?" Robert says. Every morning before he leaves for work, he takes a wineglass and fills it with tap water. He dips his nose into the glass. "I can smell it right now," he says. "It's definitely there."

Of all the barriers keeping people from trusting the water again, the smell might be the strongest. The scent still lingers around the site of Freedom Industries as though the spill had happened yesterday. This month, a study by scientists examining the impact of the spill showed that humans can detect the odor at an estimated .15 parts per billion—meaning that long after officials said it was safe, residents were still smelling it in their water. Robert likes to say that "humans did not make it this far eating and drinking things that don't smell right." They trust their noses over the government.

Even the local water company acknowledges how difficult it has been for residents to feel comfortable using the faucet. "We realize that trust in both public and private agencies was challenged during this event. Conflicting information provided by various sources did not help," says Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia American Water Co. "West Virginia American Water has done its best to make sure our customers received the most accurate and timely information we could provide. And we worked closely with the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health to reinforce the information they provided."

In the face of public pressure, the West Virginia Legislature has passed a bill requiring the annual inspection of aboveground chemical storage tanks. Following criticism of the one-part-per-million threshold, Tomblin directed the National Guard to test at 10 parts per billion and later at two parts per billion for schools. He also provided funding for a team of independent scientists to conduct in-home tests on the water. The team is just beginning to release its preliminary findings. Earlier this month, it reported that the initial flushing recommended by the water company had "mixed effectiveness"—only some of the homes tested after the flushing were below 10 parts per billion. In April, the scientists plan to release their findings of a review of CDC's one part per million threshold.

Also this month, FBI agents descended on the site of the company tasked with cleaning up Freedom Industries, seizing computers and hard drives. Both the company, Diversified Services, and Freedom Industries are under federal investigation related to the spill. The state Department of Environmental Protection later said it was citing Diversified for allegedly spilling crude MCHM into a ditch that empties into a tributary of the Kanawha River, which joins with the Elk River in the heart of Charleston.

To Stay Or To Leave?

Laura opens the washer and bends over it to investigate the smell. In the spill's aftermath, she's been taking the family's laundry to a Laundromat a town over, or to their cabin, three hours away, but the burden of extra time and travel in a four-person family with two working parents is beginning to be too much to bear. Recently, she began experimenting with using tap water to wash mudroom towels and workout clothes. In a few weeks, they'll try showers. "There's a very faint sweetness to it," she says. "I smell it ever so faintly." She carries dry laundry to the bedroom and begins removing clothes from the wash, stopping every few items to take a whiff. She grabs her husband's bike jersey and brings it to her nose. "Oh," Laura says. "I smell it here. I definitely smell it."

She loves West Virginia. It's her husband's home, a place where her kids had room to grow up free from the crushing demands of life in an East Coast city. They also have access to the state's myriad of natural treasures. But lately, she is beginning to wonder whether the costs of life in West Virginia don't outweigh the benefits.

Laura had grown up in a place once nicknamed the chemical capital of the world, Wilmington, Delaware. Her father took his first job out of college at DuPont and stayed there for 35 years. She grew up believing she was safe: the ocean she swam in, the water she drank, the air she breathed.

Then, eight years ago, her mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. Her oncologist speculated that exposure to some kind of toxin could have been the cause. With the best treatments available, she lived for 18 months and died before she was 70. Not long after her mother's diagnosis, her father was found to have pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive lung disease that causes the tissue to thicken and scar. There is no known cure, and treatment is limited. He now uses hospice care and relies on an oxygen tank. Multiple exposures to chemicals or radiation are considered a major cause. Another family member contracted another kind of cancer caused by chemical exposure in one out of every four cases.

Laura could never know whether growing up in Delaware's chemical corridor was what caused her family's health problems. But as she raised her own children in another chemical valley, she was beset with a similar series of unknowns. Was their drinking water safe? What about the river they rafted in? The air they breathed? Laura and Robert had talked about leaving, but they had a son about to start high school and a daughter waiting to find out where she'd attend college that spring. They wondered who would want to buy property in Charleston now anyway.

The decision was mostly made for them. Stay put, at least for now. Protect themselves as best they could. That might mean never drinking the water again. She wanted it to stop smelling. She wanted to feel comfortable enough to wash dishes and shower in it. But it was difficult to imagine that drinking it would ever feel safe.

That afternoon, Laura takes another trip to the grocery store 20 minutes away to make sure the produce she serves her family at dinner isn't sprayed with potentially contaminated water. "There's nothing we can do about what's already happened," she tells Robert. "We can only move forward from here."

As she passes the water tank at the Big Lots on her way to buy groceries, where people line up to fill their water jugs, she knows her family is luckier than most; at least she and Robert had the time, energy, and resources to come up with a plan for avoiding the water. While many people aren't drinking the water, plenty have resigned themselves to showering in it.

For Laura, the uncertainty is the hardest part. Not knowing what the spill means long term; not knowing when the water is safe to trust; not knowing whether a single glass of water or a lifetime of machine-washed laundry means exposure to a chemical that could cause more catastrophic illness.

At dinner, she boils a large pot of pasta in bottled water they store in a Rubbermaid thermos over the sink. Her daughter, Carly, is watching the news in the living room when a segment about the water spill comes on. They pause to watch it together. On TV they see shots of schools that had continued to close a month after the spill. They see residents who, like them, won't drink the water.

They are glad to see that, six weeks after the incident, the story hasn't been entirely forgotten. But they are conflicted. The report also contains the usual assurances from officials that the water is safe to drink. "It's making West Virginians look stupid," Carly says. She thinks it's missing crucial context: all of the uncertainties that made them feel they couldn't trust the official recommendations in the early aftermath of the spill. "They're leaving out that they didn't give good information to the public in the first place."

After it's over, Laura goes back to the kitchen and thinks about what she saw. She wonders aloud: "Is it OK? Are we overreacting?" The state of emergency has been lifted. From the outside, the crisis seems over. But it lives on as a crisis of confidence. She lifts a large pot of bottled water onto the stove and sets it to light.