West Virginia Water Supply Remains Toxic

west virginia

While much of America’s attention is diverted to the Sochi Olympics, people in West Virginia are still trying to come to grips with the toxic chemical spill which fouled water for 300,000 residents. Tap water, in many parts of a nine county area still cannot be used for drinking, cooking or bathing. Officials tasked with monitoring the water supply are giving mixed messages and that is adding to the problems residents face.

Six weeks after toxic chemicals poured into West Virginia’s largest fresh water supply, people would still rather put a coat on and drive to a shopping center parking lot where they can fill plastic containers from a tanker truck than just turn the spigot in their kitchen.

Many West Virginians are doing this routine as often as three times a week. Feeling it is a necessary chore to feel safe, they are upset over government officials declaring that the water in their homes is safe to drink. Jeanette Maddox, like many of the 300,000 people affected, is not so sure.

Residents have been challenged to track the mixed messages and contradictory information that government health officials and Freedom Industries have been providing. Officials from West Virginia’s Department of Public Health have even stopped using the word “safe” to describe the water quality. Instead they are using such phrases as “appropriate to use.”

In Charleston, restaurants still have signs posted that say, “We’re cooking with bottled water.” The licorice smell, which indicates the ongoing presence of the toxins, is still drifting out of showers, toilets and faucets. On February 5, the school district temporarily shut down schools because of the overpowering odor in the educational buildings.

The message officials have been passing out has been contradictory and no one is sure whom to follow or listen to. Hours after the schools closed, an official with the Centers for Disease Control gave a wide endorsement of the water. The official declared that the water was safe for everyone, including pregnant women, to drink it. In the days that followed, federal officials advised that pregnant women should use a different source of water.

Doctors throughout the affected nine county area are still advising their patients to avoid the water on a case-by-case basis. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has continued to have water trucked in by tanker trucks and military vehicles. Tomblin does not see any end in sight for the ongoing water crisis.

In submitting a request on January 29 for more federal help, Tomblin wrote, “It is impossible to predict when this will change, if ever.”

Although it is still unknown what the chemicals in the water will do to pipes in houses, Dr. Andrew Whelton with the University of Alabama, has been traveling to West Virginia to monitor long-term, residential water quality. Whelton’s research will include investigating how the chemicals permeates and bonds to pipes.

Officials have steadily maintained that the chemical does not have the right make up to stick around in pipes only to resurface later. People in the nine country area can still smell the licorice aroma long after the government and health officials say the water is safe to drink.

In an area nicknamed “Chemical Valley,” even people who have lived their entire lives in Charleston are worried. At a public meeting in the statehouse two weeks ago, several people said they are preparing to move from the area. Even before the spill, people were already departing the state at one of the highest rates in the nation.

Sue Davis, 71, has lived in Kanawha County her entire life. She says that her faith in the water supply will never return and that trusting the authorities will not make the risks any less threatening. “I think people are fooling themselves,” Davis said.

The water supply in West Virginia has been toxic for decades because of the prevalence of coal mining in the “Mountain State.” Manganese and selenium poisoning is found in individuals living close to strip mining. Rivers that just a few decades ago supported freshwater fishing are now flowing cemeteries that cannot support life of any kind.

By Jerry Nelson

The Lead
National Geographic