CHARLESTON (AP) — Ever since chemicals spilled into the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginia residents in January, Charleston resident Scott McMillion and his family have used their public supply for just one task: flushing their toilet. Distrustful and angry, he’s now teaching locals how to trap and purify rainwater as a drinking source.
He’s among many in this corner of West Virginia who have taken matters into their own hands and changed water consumption habits, possibly for good. Many don’t trust official declarations that the water is again safe to drink, nearly three months after the chemical smelling of licorice ran into the Elk River last Jan. 9, throwing lives into disarray.
“When tests from my home come back clear, then I will use the water,” said McMillion, founder of Charleston Rain Catchers, a group that teaches people to collect rainfall in containers and filter it. “My family’s concern is that there doesn’t seem to be hard science to tell us what long-term effects there are to this chemical exposure.”
He’s not alone in his fears. Grassroots groups are providing fearful residents thousands of gallons of clean drinking water from independent sources, some brought in from other states. Others are surviving on expensive bottled water for cooking or drinking, or taking steps like McMillion to find other alternative sources. Distrust runs deep in West Virginia, a coal-mining state with a legacy of environmental contamination.
Paul Sheridan, an attorney who lives in Charleston with his wife, has changed ways. When eating out, he always checks what water was used in preparing food or beverages.
“It is never far from anyone’s mind. You go out to eat and have to ask if they are still cooking with bottled water. If you work in an office where people make coffee, you have to ask,” said Sheridan, whose family doesn’t drink their tap water.
Sheridan is one of a growing number of people who have filed formal complaints with the Public Service Commission , saying he and his wife don’t feel they should pay for water when it was undisputedly contaminated. “If you buy a quart of milk from the store and get it home and discover it is spoiled, the grocery has a responsibility to give you a refund,” he said.
Susan Small, a spokeperson for the state regulatory agency, said the commission can’t award damages but can review bills and determine if they need to be recalculated. Sheridan’s complaint is pending, she said.
Meanwhile, some area residents reconcile themselves to live with nagging worries or fears, though some have moved or are thinking of doing so.
Leah Devine, a Spanish language instructor, still lives in an affected area of downtown Charleston but is closing on a house elsewhere in the state. She said she experienced skin irritation and burning eyelids when she showered around 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 9.
“I don’t trust the water, but I’m also moving because of how this situation was handled,” she said. “The chemical was pouring into our water since early that morning and we were not alerted until after 5 p.m. I can’t trust that if another, potentially lethal, chemical enters our water or air that we will be notified in time.”
On Jan. 9, an industrial storage container spilled around 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM, a chemical used in coal production, a half mile above a drinking water intake in the river. The drinking ban was lifted Jan. 13, when authorities said levels of the chemical MCHM had dropped below a federal safety threshold of 1 part per million. President Jeff McIntyre of the water supplier West Virginia American Water even sipped a glass of the water in front of journalists soon after.
But public wariness didn’t evaporate in a state steeped in coal-processing and other industries.
The Elk River is a nearly 180-mile tributary of the Kanawha River, which flows in turn into the Ohio River. Both rivers flow through a part of West Virginia many dub “Chemical Valley” because it’s home to one of the largest concentrations of U.S. chemical plants.
But since state and federal funds for water distribution stopped last month, many grassroots organizations have arisen to help distribute clean water, alleviating the expense for many residents still distrustful of the tap.
On March 14, a group called Mountain Justice set up a clean water distribution site outside the Governor’s Mansion, lining up gallon jugs in rows on the sidewalk. Their message: Many West Virginians are still afraid of the water, and there’s still a need for water distribution.
The West Virginia Clean Water Hub, a volunteer organization formed after the spill, is the largest of its kind delivering water, but there are many others from West Virginia and neighboring states. Volunteers including a Lexington, Ky., “Clean Water Drive for West Virginia” even help out, hauling cases of gallon water jugs to distribution sites. And using social media, some people offer to collect others’ empty jugs and refill them when they’re away.
The Clean Water Hub estimates it has handed out around 17,000 gallons of water since the chemical spill and its work continues. Volunteers, many impacted by the spill themselves, deliver water to the elderly and families that can’t afford the financial burden.
Daniel Estep began volunteering with the water hub after the group delivered water to his home. Esteps’ neighbors in the community of Prenter have been connected to city water since a nearby strip-mining operation contaminated their well water in 2009.
“The way I see it, we still need water bad. When city water came we thought we were going to be good. We were going to be safe,” he said. “People in this area will never feel completely safe after this one.”
As a coal mining state, West Virginia has a long history of friction between environmental groups and the coal and natural gas industries. Chemical runoff from strip mining, oil and gas drilling effecting wells and water tables, as well as worker safety in mines has been decades-old concerns.
Scott Smith, chief scientist for the national non-profit environmental group Water Defense, said residents are justified in their concern about the chemical MCHM that entered the supply. He said there’s scant information on what it does or how it breaks down.
“It should never have been allowed to be used in the industry without independent testing and study and should never have been stored within a mile of a water intake,” he said.
Smith said chemical compounds like MCHM are extremely complex and therefore do not disperse or dilute evenly. Water testing must be conducted the entire depth of the water, from the surface to sediments on the bottom, to get a full picture of water’s health, he added.
The scientist said this type of spill could happen in other states as well. “There are millions of gallons of this chemical being stored throughout the country where there is coal processing. The scary thing is there is much more that we don’t know about it than we do know,” he said.