By Joel Achenbach, Published: January 12 E-mail the writer
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Around the swollen Elk River, now flowing with a chemical that’s hard to pronounce, myriad streams and rivulets tumbled from the hillsides over the weekend, the result of a drenching downpour. Logs and branches floated downstream, toward the junction with the Kanawha in the heart of the city. Potholes on the beat-up country roads had turned into deep puddles.
As they say: Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) held a news conference Saturday evening to discuss the state of emergency in West Virginia after a chemical spill affected the water supply of nearly 300,000 residents.
Chemical on the Elk River
“DO NOT USE WATER,” say the signs taped over sinks at the airport, and in the State Capitol the sinks are entirely wrapped in plastic bags. People line up for free water at the fire stations or buy it at the Dollar General — $1.60 for a 20-ounce Dasani, $39 for a flat of 24 bottles.
A chemical used in coal processing has leaked from an old tank along the Elk and invaded the water supply, a crisis that has affected nearly 300,000 people in nine counties and effectively closed the largest city in the state. You can’t drink the water, bathe in it or do laundry with it. It’s good only for flushing.
Monday will mark the fifth day of the water emergency, which began early Thursday when people all over town registered a powerful odor like black licorice. Two state employees tracked the leak to Freedom Industries, which owns a row of vintage storage tanks along the south bank of the Elk. The chemical had leaked from an inch-wide hole in the bottom of one tank, pooled in a containment area and then seeped through a porous cinder-block retaining wall, down the bank and into the river.
Government officials said Sunday that chemical levels had dropped significantly over the weekend, enabling the West Virginia American Water Co. to begin flushing out the contaminated pipes. The entire process will take a number of days and will occur in stages, starting in Charleston and working outward to the remote areas of the distribution system.
The infrastructure here was primed for a water crisis. The intake for the system is downstream by a little more than a mile, and on the same side of the river, as the tanks containing the chemicals.
“The impacts caused by this were caused by the public water intakes being so close,” said Randy Huffman, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Mike Dorsey, a top official with the agency, said that the substance in the tank was not considered a “hazardous material” and that the site was not subject to regular inspections by the state.
After the leak, he said, he was informed by Freedom Industries that the company had set aside $1 million in escrow to upgrade the containment area around the tanks. But those upgrades had not begun.
An attorney for Freedom Industries who was at the aging facility Saturday would not comment on the record. He provided a reporter with a copy of a news article saying that the chemical is not very toxic.
The facility was crowded with contract workers in hard hats. The buzz of heavy machinery filled the air along with the lingering licorice odor.
Freedom Industries executives have kept a low profile since a news conference Friday in which the company’s president, Gary Southern, complained of having a long day, repeatedly swigged from a bottle of water and several times tried to cut short questions from reporters. Southern played down the scale of the leak, saying, “We don’t believe a great deal of material left the facility.” He said the offending material had all been removed from the site.
That assertion was contradicted by Dorsey, who said the chemical is in the soil along the bank and in various layers of clay and concrete in the containment area. “I’m guessing there will be some coming out of that bank for some time now,” Dorsey said.
Workers have dug trenches along the river to contain further leakage of the chemical, he said. Dorsey estimated the size of the leak at 7,500 gallons, up from an initial estimate of 5,000.
The West Virginia American Water Co. sent out the do-not-use order late Thursday afternoon, but by then people had been drinking the water, cooking with it and bathing children with it. Residents are anxious and outraged and want to know how this happened, why they weren’t warned earlier and when, exactly, the chemical got into the water.
Dorsey said, “We’re fairly confident that it started on Thursday, just because of the low odor threshold of this material.”
That means it stinks. It’s not the worst smell you ever encountered, but it makes its presence known even at modest levels, like the chemical that is put into natural gas to make leaks more easily detected.
The shorthand name for the chemical is “crude MCHM.” The technical name is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. (“I can’t pronounce the chemical name. It’s MH, MCMH, it’s something like that,” said Huffman, the Cabinet secretary.)
More than 150 people have showed up at emergency rooms complaining of rashes, upset stomachs and other ailments. As of Sunday, 10 had been admitted for treatment, none in serious condition, according to the state’s tally. Government officials have mentioned that a number of people fall into the category of the “worried well.”
Now comes the Great Flushing. The chemical has invaded the entire system, from the treatment plant to the pipes in people’s homes. State officials spent the weekend testing the water at the treatment plant and in fire hydrants, waiting for the concentration to drop below one part per million. That, they said, is a level that poses no public health risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Col. Greg Grant of the West Virginia National Guard, which is heavily involved in the emergency response, said Sunday that an early-morning test showed no sign of the chemical in the treatment plant and dropping concentrations at fire hydrants. As the flushing process continues, further tests will be conducted on water around the region, and at some point officials will lift the do-not-use order.
“We see light at the end of the tunnel,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) said Sunday afternoon.
Even if this does not turn out to be a public health disaster, the water crisis has provided a reminder of why the Kanawha River Valley is sometimes called Chemical Valley. Freedom Industries’ Web site states, “Freedom Industries is a leading producer of freeze conditioning agents, dust control palliatives, flotation reagents, water treatment polymers and other specialty chemicals.”
Assurances that the leak poses no lethal risk has not brought everyone around here much comfort. “I drank a 32-ounce glass of it right before they put it on TV,” said Nate Halstead, 33, who works with troubled children and lives just a stone’s throw from the leak site. “I don’t know what to do, honestly.”
Most schools and day-care centers will be closed until the water crisis is over. Most restaurants and bars are closed. A few businesses have received permission from the health department to reopen; among the first in Charleston was the Monkey Barrel, which staged a drag show Saturday night.
Hotels are open, but guests can’t shower. Some residents are fleeing the affected area, flooding hotels in such places as Huntington, W.Va., about an hour’s drive from Charleston.
Others are coping by eating a lot of fried food, grilled food, or whatever they can pull out of the freezer and microwave. They are loading up on baby wipes, and when those are depleted at the store they buy the makeup-removing wipes, plus lots of hand sanitizer.
Life here is a lot like camping.
“You just make do,” said Teresa “Tiki” Easter, 49, who works in health care. “I wash my hair in the sink. You take a rag, have an old military-style bath.”
The Rev. Carolyn Hairston captured rainwater with plastic bags.
“Jesus is taking care of us. He sent us the rain,” she said. “I’ve been watching ‘The Waltons’ and ‘Little House on the Prairie’ for years, and I didn’t watch those shows for nothing.”