Health and Fitness

On The Anniversary Of The Elk River Chemical Spill, West Virginians Tell Their Stories

elk river

Friday marks the anniversary of the West Virginia chemical spill in the Elk River, in which thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical used to process coal spilled upstream from a water treatment plant serving the state capital, Charleston, and surrounding areas. Around 300,000 West Virginia residents were left without potable water as officials scrambled to purge the chemical, known as MCHM, from the supply.

Residents were told not to use the water for anything other than flushing toilets or extinguishing fires. In some areas, the do-not-use order lasted for 10 days. Those affected by the spill told The Huffington Post that buying bottled water ate into already tight household budgets.

They were also instructed to run their faucets to flush their home plumbing systems of traces of the chemical, which has a sweet, licorice-like odor. A new study from Purdue University found that officials’ recommendations overlooked the risks of MCHM inhalation and West Virginians suffered adverse health effects from flushing their homes’ water.

Four executives of Freedom Industries, the company whose tanks leaked the chemical, were indicted in December for negligence and criminal violation of the Clean Water Act. “It’s hard to overstate the disruption that results when 300,000 people suddenly lose clean water,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said at the time. The company’s president, Gary Southern, and two other executives pleaded not guilty this week, one day ahead of the anniversary.

Water utility West Virginia American Water released test results in early March that showed MCHM was no longer detectable in the water. The “CDC believes that the water is safe for consumption for all users … including pregnant women,” the utility wrote in a press release. Yet residents’ faith in their water supply was not immediately restored.

The utility said Friday that it believes that water systems across the state are now better protected due to the company’s improvements, action from the state legislature and heightened community awareness.“Today, our customers can be confident that their water is truly the great quality they’ve come to expect from West Virginia American Water,” said Jeff McIntyre, the utility’s president.

Freedom Industries did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

Below, individuals who were impacted by the spill share their stories.

Rebecca Roth, a Charleston-area mother who was pregnant during the water crisis:
I was born and raised in West Virginia and have lived in Charleston for the last 6 years.

A year ago at this time my daughter was not yet two and I was pregnant with my son — I went from feeling happy anticipation for what the new year held to being filled with uncertainty and fear for our family’s health. Being afraid that you are not keeping your children safe and healthy is one of the worst fears I have ever experienced.

Workers walk behind the fence at the Freedom Industries building in Charleston, West Virginia, on Saturday, January 11, 2014. ( Ty Wright for the Washington Post)

After the water crisis, my life centered around making arrangements for drinking, cooking, dishwashing, laundry and bathing without using tap water. We tried to do our best to keep our family safe, but it was hard, especially with additional new, and sometimes conflicting, information. Our family followed the flushing directions for our house’s pipes to a T, but afterwards we learned that children shouldn’t have been around during the flush and that the windows should have been opened, information that we didn’t have at the time. We have no idea how dangerous this stuff is, this stuff that got into our water and shouldn’t be there.

A year ago began an extremely stressful time in which my husband and I considered every single decision of everyday life -– even whether to sign up our daughter for swim lessons -– in light of what the health implications would be, but what we worried about most last year was the effect the chemical spill was having on our toddler daughter’s future health and how it was affecting the stages of critical development of the fetus growing inside me.

“I spent too much time last year being afraid.”

I spent too much time last year being afraid. When my son Sid was born in August, I was relieved to count 10 fingers and 10 toes, but not all signs of health are so easy to see. It will be years before our family knows, for example, if the reproductive health of either of our kids has suffered at all because of the chemical spill. Water is the most important resource we have and it is essential to our children’s health. We’ve put down roots in our community but they need water.

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South Charleston Public Works employees assist local residents in South Charleston, West Virginia, in obtaining bottled water at the GeStamp Stamping Plant-South Charleston distribution location on Jan. 12, 2014. (AP Photo Michael Switzer)

Dr. Ben Stout, aquatic biologist with a specialty in water quality and a professor at Wheeling Jesuit University:

We really didn’t have a good feel for what the toxicity of the substance was, at any level of the ecosystem, much less to the human community. One of the senators mentioned that if it hadn’t been for the smell, our human ability to detect small quantities of 4-MCHM, we would have never known that this whole community had been exposed.
“I wasn’t very proud of West Virginia’s response to it in general.”
I personally sampled a lot of households in Charleston and it was fairly easy to find in a hot water heater the chemical itself, but it’s much more difficult to get it out of the system. I wasn’t very proud of West Virginia’s response to it in general.

It’s a hydrophobic molecule like oil. You can’t just flush it out of a system, a substance like that. It sticks to surfaces, and you have to use soap and water. Never once did anybody mention that in the emergency response. I found that completely appalling that nobody really looked at the chemical nature of the molecule, nobody in the state response really looked into it and asked the scientific community what they should do. They didn’t bring their resources to bear, and that’s embarrassing.

Cathy Kunkel, steering committee member, Advocates for a Safe Water System, based in Charleston, West Virginia:
Even in the early days of the water crisis, it was apparent that WV American Water bore some responsibility for what was happening. We learned that WV American Water had no knowledge of this chemical that was sitting in a tank –- clearly visible from the interstate -– along the river 1.5 miles upstream of their intake. We learned that the water company had been informed by the Bureau for Public Health back in 2002 that their intake was highly susceptible to contamination, but that they had only researched three of the 27 potential contaminant sources that the Bureau for Public Health had identified for them.

WV American Water has strongly defended its response to the crisis, and has resisted attempts by citizens and regulators to understand what went wrong. The water company is currently the subject of an investigation by the Public Service Commission, which is looking at the utility’s response to the chemical spill. The water company vigorously resisted requests for it to turn over its emergency planning and preparedness documents.

One year after the water crisis, there is still a lot of public mistrust of the water company, and a lot of concern that they have not done enough to address the failings that were made apparent during the crisis. We need a proactive, transparent water system that engages citizens in making our water system safe.

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West Virginia state troopers fill water jugs at the Kmart in Elkview, West Virginia, on Jan. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

Janet Keating, executive director, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in Huntington, West Virginia:
The water crisis gave people in the Charleston area a small taste of what people living in coal mining areas have been exposed to for decades. If the crisis taught us one thing, it’s that we should never play politics with water. Since the crisis, more of us are working to ensure the safety of water across West Virginia.

Kevin Carte, former teacher and coach from St. Albans, West Virginia:
I grew up in the Kanawha Valley. As a child I never really thought about the chemical plants as a health concern. Instead, I viewed them as much needed, and well-paid jobs for our area. As an adult, I can see the bigger picture. Our state has been sold out by eager politicians to “big coal,” and the chemical industry. It’s been going on for decades … over 75 years. West Virginia has been made a dumping ground for both industries, with little to no concern for the environment, or our people and future generations.

“It’s a shame that it had to take something so egregious to wake us up.”

I think back to growing up with the smell of rotten potatoes wafting throughout our Valley, and wonder what health impacts it’s had on my family, and myself. We knew we were breathing that putrid odor, but did we consider that we were consuming unknown chemicals through our water? I never considered it.

This spill has created an awareness, and a sense of urgency in respect to our precious natural recourses. It’s a shame that it had to take something so egregious to wake us up. We are now left to wonder what effect this chemical has had on us, and what future health problem may arise.

The saddest part of this is that we are just waiting for the next foot to fall. It will happen again. The question is where.

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Supermarket shelves that held bottled water stand empty as residents stock up on drinking water across Kanawha County on Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo Michael Switzer)

Anoa Changa, attorney and former resident of Charleston, West Virginia:

It is imperative that the stories of affected residents continue to be told particularly in light of studies showing the public health shortcomings in this incident. My kids spent the first few days after the spill in Morgantown with friends. I drove to Beckley to wash clothes at a friend’s house. As a young professional with two children and student loan debt, the additional cost of needing to live on bottled water was a strain on my wallet and my mental state. I called poison control after my son had ingested water on the Thursday after school. He had made two cups of hot chocolate before we were alerted. Poison control took down all of our information, including phone number and zip code, but they were not very helpful. My children and I were among those who had inhalation-related issues due to exposure during the flush process, which I had to repeat several times.

After each attempt I had lung and throat burning as well as shortness of breath. For the flush, we were told to run the hot water first, for 15 minutes, and then the cold for five minutes. There was no mention of possible vapors or inhalation issues despite the material safety data sheet indicating there could be issues at high temperatures. Also, it is interesting to note that the school employees who did the flushing received additional warnings that were not given to residents regarding ventilation of the home. I continued to have issues at my home after trying to flush twice with the official flushing protocol. Finally, I was able to get through to a technician at the water company who gave me “modified” instructions. They were only providing modified instructions as people reported issues. He also advised I leave my home because of possible fumes. He also said that some areas were harder to flush due to the dead-ends in the pipe systems. Although this helped some, we still could not use the hot water in our bathroom for whatever reason.

I waited until April or so before we began using the water to shower. We never returned to drinking water or using it in food preparation. I have since relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, to be closer to family. Despite the adversity of the situation, the people of the Kanawha Valley were resilient and determined to advocate for better outcomes in the future.

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Jim Cole of Exeter, New Hampshire, got the last few bottles of water at the Kroger in South Charleston, West Virginia, on Jan. 9, 2014, following a chemical spill in the Elk River that compromised the public water supply to eight counties. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

Melanie Kipp, registered nurse and single mother from Kanawha County, West Virginia:
My children had been complaining of stomach upset for a week or longer prior to Jan. 9, 2014, and my pets were ill with vomiting and diarrhea during the same period of time. A huge pot of green beans I had prepared for a family get-together hadn’t tasted right, either. My mother’s elderly cat was so ill she thought he must be dying. Now I know that the “official” date of the spill is reported to be Jan. 9, however the hole that was finally discovered in the bottom of Tank 396 at Freedom Industries which spilled the MCHM into our drinking water surely was leaking much longer than officially reported.

The immediate impact on my family involved planning for simple hygiene measures like washing our hands, cooking food, watering our animals and doing laundry. Bottled water in the stores sold out almost immediately. I sent my oldest to southern West Virginia to purchase bottled water from areas not affected by the spill. Eventually bottled water was trucked in and distributed, however it was rationed. My elderly neighbor was unable to drive so we’d get our water and then switch cars and go get him a case of water. Since we couldn’t wash anything with the water, paper plates, plastic cups, bowls and cutlery also became a necessity. If I did have to cook using nondisposable items, I used bottled water I heated on the stove in a large pot for dishwashing purposes. This same method also provided our water for bathing. Buying the water and disposables ate a hole in an already tight budget.

“We are the lab rats.”

After four days the “do not use” ban was lifted and we were told to flush our house plumbing for several minutes. The house smelled like grape Kool-Aid to me, but others describe the smell as a sweet licorice smell. Even after flushing, the water continued to smell like MCHM and whatever other chemicals were in the mix. It left an oily film on dishes and the skin. We continued to avoid it. Showering resumed, but they were quick and followed with a final rinse of heated bottled water.

Long term, we are dealing with uncertainty and continued frustration. No one really knows what our exposure to MCHM and the other cocktail of chemicals may cause later on. Will our children develop cancer in a few decades? There have been no real health impact studies ever conducted. We are the lab rats.

In short, we feel expendable. We feel our health is less important than keeping the Industry happy. We’re fighting –- but we don’t have the money and the lobbyists the coal and chemical companies have. We are still NOT drinking the water.

Sarah, a resident of Hurricane, West Virginia:

It was one year ago today that I was on my way home when I heard the news about the chemical leak. Living in the chemical valley my entire life, I have learned that these things to happen from time to time but usually clear up rather quickly. I figured that I should stop by Walmart on my way home and grab a case of water. Well, that was a terrible idea. There was not a single bottle of water in sight and many people had shopping carts completely filled with water, running frantically throughout the store. I have never seen so many people in Walmart, it was a borderline mob scene. I’d be willing to bet that almost every sheriff in town was standing in the store.

The following day I drove to a couple of the “relief stations” set up to give out free water. Most places were out but I did end up filling up a few jugs from a tank set up at West Virginia State University.

My father-in-law works for a wonderful company that shipped in many cases of water for employees and their families, so that was a lifesaver. We had enough bottled water to last us for several months.

I really don’t think the worst part was having to buy bottled water to drink. However, not taking a shower or being able to do dishes was quite possibly the worst in my opinion. One day I actually soaped parts of my body up and walked out in the rain. Frozen food was scarce at the grocery store, there wasn’t a frozen pizza for miles nor baby wipes. Dishes piled up in sinks and dirty clothes filled laundry baskets.

Once residents got the OK to flush our systems we were all still skeptical. The water ban was lifted in zones and took days for everyone to finally be able to use their water. The flushing consisted of running every single faucet and appliance in our homes for close to 30 minutes.

Although it took around 6 months for my pets and I to drink the water sparingly, I immediately took a shower and began washing clothes. The hot water stunk of licorice and it lingered in the hot water for weeks, maybe even longer.

Needless to say, I keep a stockpile of bottled water on hand now.

Ashley Dunkle, nursing student and resident of Kenna, West Virginia:

My home was not in the affected area of the chemical leak, but all of my friends and family were. My husband and I offered our shower and washer and dryer for anyone who needed it. We would also take late trips to Walmart and Kroger so that we could get water and distribute it to those in need. I work at an area hospital and we were unable to bathe patients properly. Clean linen became an issue as well as clean plates and cutlery.

Without West Virginia pulling together as a family, Charleston wouldn’t have made it!

Interviews were edited and condensed for clarity.

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