Muddled messages from officials have left residents wary after chemical spill.
Feb. 11, 2014: Sue Davis, left, waits to speak during a legislative public meeting , in Charleston, W. Va., about a chemical leak in the Elk River. More than a month after chemicals seeped into West Virginia’s biggest water supply, many residents are not convinced of the water's safety.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – More than a month after chemicals seeped into West Virginia’s biggest water supply, Jeanette Maddox would rather bundle up, drive to a shopping center parking lot and fill jugs of water from the spigot of a tanker truck than trust the tap in her kitchen.
This is Maddox’s new routine three times a week, what she considers a necessary burden to feel safe drinking water, cooking with it and making coffee.
For weeks, government officials have said the running water in nine counties is suitable for all daily needs. But Maddox, like many of the 300,000 residents whose water was contaminated Jan. 9, is not convinced.
She notes that officials waited four to 10 days, depending on the neighborhood, before allowing people to use their water. In the days right after Freedom Industries leaked chemicals into the Elk River in Charleston, officials said the water should be used only for flushing toilets and fighting fires.
Residents have struggled to track, let alone trust, mixed messages and muddied information from government officials and Freedom Industries, the company involved. Despite public pressure, officials have been reluctant to call the water “safe” and have started arguing that the term is subjective. Instead, they use phrases such as “appropriate to use.”
“Well, they won’t use the word ‘safe,’ ” said Maddox, who lives with her two daughters and two grandsons in Charleston. “But, the water is ‘OK.’ We don’t know that.”
Maddox is not alone, as visible signs of doubt about the water are everywhere.
In Charleston, eateries display signs that say, “We’re cooking with bottled water.” The chemical licorice smell still wafts out of some showers, toilets and taps in homes and businesses. The smell resurfaced in five schools Feb. 5 and 6, and the district temporarily shut them down. In one case, a teacher fainted and went to the hospital.
Hours after two of the schools closed Feb. 5, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave a broad endorsement of the water, saying everyone, pregnant women included, could use it. Up to that point, pregnant women had received conflicting guidance.
The nine-county region was cleared to use the water before Freedom Industries revealed that a second chemical, stripped PPH, was in the tank that spilled. Crude MCHM, the first chemical discovered in the spill, and stripped PPH, are used to clean coal. Little is known about their toxicity, in the short or long term. Neither is considered hazardous by federal standards. Only a handful of studies exist for crude MCHM, and they were on lab animals.
Today, doctors are still advising some patients, such as people with chronic conditions or compromised immune systems, to avoid the water on a case-by-case basis, said Kanawha County Health Officer Dr. Rahul Gupta.
Outside water continues to be brought in by tanker trucks and military vehicles, under orders by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration. The public still demands it, Tomblin said. Asking for more help, he wrote, “It is impossible to predict when this will change, if ever.”