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."