Don't Drink the Water: West Virginia After the Chemical Spill

After a toxic disaster contaminated their water, the people of Charleston, West Virginia, are wondering if what's coming out of the taps is harmful. They're not getting any good answers

The Freedom Industries building in Charleston, West Virginia.
Ty Wright for the Washington Post
March 12, 2014 12:25 PM ET

Sharon Satterfield, a grandmother of six in Charleston, West Virginia, doesn't touch the water. "It's still not all right," she says, standing in her son's modest ranch-style house, almost two months after a toxic chemical spill shut down the drinking water supply of 300,000 residents in and around the state capitol — one of the largest incidents of drinking water contamination in U.S. history. At the time, state authorities banned the use of tap water for everything except flushing toilets and fighting fires. A fifth-generation native of the Appalachian Kanawha River region (known as Chemical Valley), Satterfield has always used the water for everything. But even with the official go-ahead having been given several weeks ago, she refuses to drink it. Nor will she brush her teeth with it or shower in it; she won't run a load of laundry. She even refuses to mop the floor with the water. "It's sad," she says, her eyes tired. "All my life, with all the chemical plants, Carbide, DuPont and all the rest, we've never had a problem like this."

The Fossil Fuel Resistance

On a recent afternoon, the retired 68-year-old, who spent her working life at the local gas utility, shuffles around the kitchen in sneakers and green nurse's scrubs. She wears them because children are messy, but she looks, eerily, as though she's prepared to treat the sick. A one-gallon jug balances on the edge of the sink. The faucet, unused for weeks, is pushed to the side, away from the basin. The time is just past noon and Satterfield, whose ex-husband died from cancer six years ago, is warming a lunch of canned chicken soup and microwave macaroni and cheese for her three granddaughters, aged four, three and one. Packaged foods are now the norm in the house, as is the use of paper plates, plastic forks and disposable wipes. Before the two older girls sit down at their miniature table in the living room, Satterfield squirts antibacterial sanitizer into each pair of hands, making sure the girls rub it in. "This is how we do it now, no hand washing from the tap," she says. Back at the stove, she stoops her head to check the temperature dial on the rear burner that's heating a pot of bottled water. This is for washing the few dishes and pans she uses, like the two older girls' sippy cups. Rinsing the cups and lids almost empties the water pot, using half a gallon of what many people here call "good," that is non-local, water. A few moments later, the three-year-old, in sequined pink cowboy boots, tiptoes into the kitchen and whispers that she wants hot dogs instead of soup. Satterfield pours a quart of water into another pot to cook the wieners. She goes through a gallon of clean water before lunch is even served.

Like thousands of families in the area, the Satterfields now live virtually without running water. Life in West Virginia wasn't all that easy to begin with. It is the third poorest state in the country; almost 18 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. Many people in the spill zone are now spending a chunk of their paychecks simply to have access to clean water — a necessity so fundamental it's one that people in a developed country should expect. 

Since the spill, Archie Satterfield, Sharon's son, has doled out about $400 on disposable goods and bottled water, in addition to all the extra gas he's burned driving to his sister's house in another county to do laundry, and bathe himself and his kids. One way he saves money is to replenish his drinking water at the office where he's a cleaner — one of his two jobs — which is on a different water system. There he'll refill six of the family's one-gallon jugs (he doesn't take all their empties so he won't seem greedy) as he has three times each week since the start of the water crisis.

Meet the New Green Heroes

On January 9th, 10,000 gallons of a chemical called crude methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, and a significantly smaller, although unknown, amount of propylene glycol phenyl ether, or PPH, gushed from a ruptured storage tank directly into the Elk River. Owned by a company called Freedom Industries, the storage facility sits about a mile upstream from the intake for a nine-county area's drinking water supply. This water plant, belonging to West Virginia American Water (WVAW), lies at the heart of the state's most populous region. 

Elk River Charleston West Virginia
A stretch of the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia.
AP Photo/Tyler Evert

At the time of the spill, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, issued a strict do-not-use order for tap water, which lasted in some areas for 10 days. Businesses shuttered, schools closed, people mobbed grocery stores only to find empty water shelves. A mere four days after the spill, on January 13th, Governor Tomblin and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began lifting the ban in phases, explaining that they had established guidelines on acceptable MCHM levels in the water, and that these had been met. But two days after that, on January 15th, the Centers for Disease Control issued a statement warning pregnant women to avoid ingesting tap water. In the same letter, in an effort to calm everyone else, the agency insisted that it "does not anticipate any adverse health effects" for the rest of the population. But "does not anticipate" feels a long way from "safe." Sharon Satterfield and her family, like many of the region's residents—who are not the type to be skittish about chemicals — don't believe official assurances that the water is clean. Sitting in a recliner in his living room, Archie, who's 44, well groomed and wears a spotless white t-shirt, says he doesn't trust the water. "We don't know if it's going affect us in five years, or ten years, or even next week."

This stance is perfectly understandable given that Governor Tomblin and Jeff McIntyre, president of WVAW, have yet to definitively state that the water is safe. Instead they have variously described it as "appropriate" and "usable for all purposes." At a hearing in Charleston on February 10th, when pressed to unambiguously confirm the water's safety, Letitia Tierney, Commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, responded, hardly reassuringly, "That's, in a way, a difficult thing to say because everybody has a different definition of safe." Apparently the West Virginia leaders handling the crisis also believe that everyone has a different definition of what's right and what's sane. Tierney's equivocation echoed the governor's hedge on the safety question at an earlier press conference. Instead of providing clear information, Tomblin dumped responsibility on the individual. "I'm not going to say absolutely, 100 percent, that everything is safe," he said. "It's your decision."

So decide is what hundreds of thousands of people on the Elk River water supply must now do, leading to a distinct sense of unease in a valley where hardship is no stranger. A 2013 Gallup-Healthways survey found West Virginia to have the lowest state of wellbeing in the country — for the fifth straight year. According to the study, state residents had the country's highest rates of cholesterol and blood pressure, and its second highest rate of obesity. Their emotional health is also suffering: residents of no other state had as negative an outlook on the future. And now, with the MCHM spill, those living in Chemical Valley have sustained another blow. 

In Charleston things appear normal — businesses are open, the National Guard is gone, the tanker trucks of clean water are no longer idling in strip-mall parking lots — but scratch the surface and it's clear that the emergency is not over. Behind the counter at a café sit two five-gallon tanks of bottled water hooked up to the coffee machines. At a local eatery, when I order a soda, the bartender explains that it comes from the tap. "Are you sure you don't just want bottled water?" he asks. Grocery stores still can't keep their water shelves stocked. Talk to people on the street and you're told that no one drinks from the tap. Some people bathe in it, others use it to wash their clothes, but almost no one trusts it.

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