Uncertain future: Water crisis in Coal Country

West Virginians search for safe water and reassurance, six weeks after Elk River chemical spill.

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It’s been more than than two months since Freedom Industries spilled 10,000 gallons of toxic 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) and an unknown amount of a polyglycol ethers, known as PPH into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha River, in Charleston on Jan. 9th, 2014. Nearly 300,000 residents from nine counties in the vicinity of Charleston, WV were left without drinking water after the spill occurred just upstream from the main West Virginia American Water municipal intake and treatment center. State officials issued a ‘do not drink’ order late in the day after.

On Jan. 13, the advisory was lifted but days later, Freedom Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in order to hold-off the growing tide of liability lawsuits for damages resulting from the spill. Two months later, residents and some businesses still continue to use bottled water for drinking and cooking because they do not trust the tap water is safe. Past experience with government and the failure of agencies entrusted to protect them and their water here in the heart of coal country over the decades, is at the root of distrust many West Virginians feel about their government after the spill. Although state authorities declared the water ‘ok’ to use just four days after the spill and Barbara J. Reynolds, Crisis Communication Specialist for the CDC used the word ‘safe’ in a TV news interview Feb. 24, a State of Emergency is still in effect for nine counties, giving residents little confidence in the actual safety of their drinking water.

In Ripley, Jackson County, an area affected by the spill, Gail Rectenwald of Sandyville, sits with samples of water from her well to give to Senator Manchin during the politician’s meeting with residents at the Downtowner restaurant. Although her water was not affected by the chemical spill, she was there to lend support for new municipal water lines to be installed in the area. “We’ve never been able to drink our water,” she says about their well. Her family has been drinking bottled water for 25 years because there have never been any alternatives she says. The E. coli and iron levels in the water eventually got so high, the family had to install a $7,000 water filtration system just to be able to wash dishes, clothes and take showers.

In light of what many see as an inadequate response from the state in getting residents clean, safe water, the WV Clean Water Hub was established. The all-volunteer grassroots group funded by donations from across the country, came together as community joined with established environmental groups like Aurora Lights, Coal River Mountain Watch, Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and RAMPS to distribute water to those in need. Just a few miles down Route 3 from massive piles of coal at the Elk Run Coal Co. processing plant, an old U.S. Post Office branch serves as the Clean Water Hub’s main office and dispatch center in Whitesville. From here, they have been distributing water to people in seven counties since the first days of the spill. The office is humming with activity nearly 24 hours a day as volunteers field calls from residents needing water, schedule deliveries, coordinate other volunteers in the field, eat, sleep and store hundreds of gallons of clean water. They have so far been able to do what the state has failed to – make home deliveries of free water to elderly, disabled and other residents who cannot get out to pick it up themselves.

On the porch of his home in a hollow by Three Fork, Daniel J. Estep, talks about drinking the contaminated water accidentally after the ‘do not drink’ order was issued Jan 9. “I got a rash and fever and couldn’t leave the house for days without throwing up,” he tells. Six weeks after the spill and five since the state has told residents it is ok to use the water, he only drinks bottled water but still doesn’t feel right. Daniel, a musician who plays in the local punk band When it Comes, was taught by his grandfather and is accomplished on any instrument he says. “I was accepted to The Juilliard School but had to turn it down because my family didn’t have the money.” He spent a few years working in the coal mines, but had to quit because of his health after being diagnosed with kidney disease – which his specialist told him was caused by toxins in the water from years drinking out of a polluted well. Now that his tap water has been tainted from the spill he doesn’t want to chance drinking that either in fear of loosing his kidneys. “They give me until my 30s before I have to go on dialysis,” he says.

The hollow where Daniel J. Estep lives has been hit hard. Many around these parts have cancer, kidney disease or other ailments that residents attribute to the well water that they all once drank. For years the coal company dumped a cocktail of solid and liquid chemical waste in coal sludge impoundments that surround this small hollow. After people’s wells were contaminated as a result, West Virginia American Water brought in a municipal line in 2011. Now, that the chemical spill has contaminated that source of water as well, many here don’t know if they will ever drink the water again.

Ron “Ripcord” Dixon from Evan, WV, unloads a case of water from a trailer filled with donated water brought in by Century Aluminum retirees from Ravenswood to a Clean Water Hub distribution point in East End, Charleston. The retirees are a tight-knit group of former aluminum workers and their spouses who are fighting to get their healthcare benefits back after Century Aluminum cancelled them when the company mothballed their facility in Ravenswood in 2009.

The group’s leader and spokesperson Karen Gorrell found out about the dire need for clean water in the area less than an hour drive south from her, on Facebook one evening. “We had no idea how bad the situation was down here,” she said. After mobilizing the retirees the group managed to collect 200 gallons of water, in addition to 150 large cases of bottles within 24 hours and drive it down to the city’s East End. Although the aging retirees are struggling themselves, many without any health insurance at all, Gorrell said they never hesitated to lend a hand to help their fellow West Virginians. She later posted on her Facebook page, “It was heartwarming to see the generosity of so many people and knowing we could pay it forward for just a few.”

As politicians, state and federal agencies, as well as scientists debate ‘how safe’ the water is, residents continue to struggle with the decision of whether to drink it or not. Many with children are seriously considering moving out of state, while others are trying to figure out ways to pay for bottled water as long as they live in the affected counties. Looking ahead, at least for the foreseeable future until long-term water quality studies can be conducted, uncertainty about whether the water is actually safe to drink will be a daily fact of life for West Virginians.

Photos from this story were first published in The Daily Beast here.

This story was first published in Truthout here.