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Monday, July 15, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Water Disaster Leaves 330,000 Flushing Taps

CHARLESTON, W. Va. (CN) - In the sixth day of a chemical spill that's left 330,000 people without drinking water, some residents of Charleston and eight counties have received permission to flush their tap water of the coal-cleaning chemical that contaminated it.

A holding tank at Freedom Industries leaked an estimated 7,500 gallons of 4- methylcyclohexane methanol into the Elk River in downtown Charleston. Beginning Thursday, poison control centers received more than 800 calls from people suffering nausea, headaches and eye problems.

The poisoned water left more than 330,000 people without water for drinking, bathing or other household uses.

Residents of Kanawha County (Charleston), Putnam, Boone, Jackson, Lincoln, Roane, Logan and Clay Counties were affects, and parts of Cabell County.

Methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is used to wash coal and separate the burnable fossil fuel from dirt, debris, and impurities. It is a known irritant, whether it is inhaled or consumed, causing skin and eye irritation. Long-term effects on humans, such as carcinogenicity or whether it induces DNA mutations, are uncertain; the chemical was invented in 1990.

The National Guard took more than 200 samples Monday, all of which came in at less than 1 part per million, the level recommended by the Centers for Disease Control that makes the water supply safe enough o begin flushing. Flushing began Monday in the East End of Charleston, followed by Kanawha City, then the south, north and west sides of Charleston. Officials said the water had to be flushed for at least 15 minutes.

Water company officials said the water may smell of licorice for quite a while, due to the chemical.

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich hosted a town hall meeting Monday night in Charleston, where a water treatment professional said the CDC recommendations were too lax.

"If it were me," Bob Bowcock said, "I would not bathe in, drink, or consume that water until it (MCHM) is completely removed from the water."

Bowcock and Brockovich said MCHM is most dangerous if inhaled, and that it is chemically allied to benzene, a carcinogen.

Bowcock and Brockovich said throughout the meeting that there is no scientific or medical evidence to prove that even 1 ppm of MCHM is safe to drink.

"I highly recommend that you drink bottled water," Brockovich said. "You have the skills to get through this. If the water looks, smells, or tastes funny, don't drink it."

One part per million is the equivalent of a golf ball in a football stadium.

In comparison, fluoride is monitored to be controlled at 0.9 ppm. Charleston's water processing facility measures most chemicals in parts per trillion.

More than 122 West Virginians were hospitalized over the weekend due to complications from the water crisis; hospitals were overwhelmed.

One hospital rationed bottled drinking water and ice. Nurses used "no rinse" products to bath patients, linens were rationed and all patients were served the same meal.

One nurse said that "creative thinking" enabled nurses to create hand-washing stations using enema bags.

All schools in Kanawha County have been closed since Friday, and will remain closed today. Some parents, therefore, have missed work. Many businesses have been shut due to orders of the Health Department. All local businesses with food licenses have been shut, leaving all food-service workers out of work.

Public libraries were closed, as were many hair salons, dental offices, car washes, and other nonessential businesses.

More than 17 civil lawsuits had been filed against Freedom Enterprises as of Monday night.

Plaintiffs in one class action include businesses and private people. They sued Eastman Chemical Co., Freedom Industries, West Virginia American Water Corp. and Gary Southern, operations director at Freedom Industries. Poor people have been hit hardest, due to lost wages, extra food costs, and, in the ultimate irony, an expected jump in water bills due to the flushing necessary to make the water usable.

Lack of transportation has been a concern, particularly in downtown Charleston, where many people rely on public transportation.

"I took the seats out of my van and have just been delivering water to a lot of people, particularly students from my school," said Debbie Cannada, a schoolteacher on Charleston's west side.

On the east side, Piedmont Elementary staff collected bottled water and snacks, to be ready when students returned, and sent email to parents asking if anyone needed water or other supplies.

The city has been delivering water selectively to elderly shut-ins.

Putnam Aging, a nonprofit in St. Albans, also delivered meals and water.

The National Guard donated more than 1,800 Meals Ready to Eat for Putnam Aging to distribute to the elderly in Putnam and Kanawha counties.

Neighbors pitched in to help one another. Nathan Surface, a father of six in Charleston's East End, took cases of water to homeless people who live tents under the Smith Street bridge.

"It's the least we can do," he said. "Those people don't have a car and can't get to a water distribution point. At least I have a vehicle and can go find water."

Surface took his 12-year-old stepson with him.

"It's important that my children see me helping others in a time of crisis. Even when we as a family are suffering from this crisis, I want them to know that we care about others and never lose our humanity," Surface said.

The Islamic Association of West Virginia distributed water, disposable plates, cups, and silverware. Neighborhood churches distributing water, supplies, and hot meals.

Local retailers donated hand sanitizers to hospitals; Coca-Cola and Pepsi have been donating water every day; BB&T Bank sent a tractor trailer up from North Carolina loaded with supplies and 7-Eleven sent two tractor trailers of bottled water to a 7-Eleven in Nitro, W. Va., to distribute to the needy.

Manna Meal, a soup kitchen, has been serving 410 meals twice a day. The soup kitchen's director, Jean Simpson, said the facility has never closed in 38 years, but was running low on water and other supplied. It was serving milk and juice until it had a reliable supply of clean water.

State Senator Chris Walters asked people to "Turn up the Tips"-contribute more tips than usual to restaurant workers to help them make up their lost wages.

And in Washington, D.C. Thursday, the day before Charleston's water catastrophe began, the House of Representatives voted to make the Environmental Protection Agency relax its standards on environmental cleanups, to give states more leeway.

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