After a water ban that’s lasted five days, West Virginia is seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. A chemical spill caused a state of emergency and a temporary water ban in West Virginia as embattled residents waited impatiently for the go-ahead to start flushing their systems. Residents are cautioned not to rush the process, however.
West Virginia residents have been dealing with widespread water shortages since the chemical leak from the Freedom Industries plant on the Elk River. 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a compound used to clean coal, leaked into the state’s water supply on Jan. 9, and residents have been scrambling to find clean water supplies since. There have been widespread shortages of water in stores as residents have raced to their local supermarkets and department stores to secure as much bottled water as they could for bathing, drinking and cooking purposes.
Many residents have temporarily left the state in order to find a hot shower and a clean water supply. Officials have been waiting for the concentration of the chemical to drop below 1 part per million in order to give the residents the go-ahead to use the water for more than just flushing their toilets.
Residents were asked by Governor Tomblin, as well as Jeff McIntyre, president of the West Virginia American Water Company, to check with the local utility company prior to starting to use the water again.
While West Virginia is now seeing light at the end of the tunnel, residents aren’t out of the woods yet. The tank that held the chemical had a capacity of 40,000 gallons, and it’s believed that as many as 7,500 gallons leaked from the tank into a secondary container and into the Elk River just upstream from a water treatment facility. The leak was first reported when several residents started calling and reporting of a licorice-like smell to their drinking water on Thursday.
Freedom Industries does not fall under the State Department of Environmental Protection, as it doesn’t produce or manufacture chemicals. It also isn’t considered a toxic enough substance to be deemed hazardous for transportation. However, it’s unknown about how significant the health effects are when people are exposed to the chemical in chronic, smaller doses.
It’s unknown just how much time passed before Freedom Industries was aware of the leak.
The ban is being lifted in some zones, and residents couldn’t be more grateful. Some have said they have gone without showers since Thursday, and have gained a new appreciation of the benefits of clean running water now that they have been given the go-ahead to start using the water again.
Erin Brockovich, whose stellar rise as an environmental activist was chronicled in the film Erin Brockovich, arrived in Charleston to help answer residents’ questions about the chemical leak.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin was slow to accuse Freedom Industries of recklessness, although it was well after residents had started to complain of the odor and appearance of the water. The governor did say that the company had been less than forthcoming about the news of the leak, however.
While residents of West Virginia are glad to finally see some light at the end of the tunnel, the work is only continuing. The United States Chemical Safety Board is currently investigating to determine the cause or causes of the leak that affected 300,000 people.
By Christina St-Jean