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

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Laying off tap water is not easy. The difficulties of living without running water in a life organized around easy access to it are countless. Take Sharon Satterfield's family, for example. There are little things, like when Archie's ex-wife, Crystal Good, a 39-year-old Charleston native, wants to make sweet tea, but remembers she disconnected her icemaker and hasn't yet bought ice trays to fill with H2O from elsewhere. Or when she wants to wash her hands with warm water but instead uses the unheated bottle by the bathroom sink to be safe. Then there are bigger inconveniences like needing to drive to a friend's house 30 miles away to wash your clothes and take a shower. And there is the constant, nagging worry about the long-term effects on the health of her and Archie's three sons. Good frets over the possibility that their skin could absorb MCHM, and that its fumes could enter their lungs. She worries they won't feel safe in their own home.

Crystal and Archie's son Myles, 18, explains that, "When you go in the kitchen or bathroom, the whole room feels different. I can't turn that water on. I can't use that sink," he says, having arrived at Archie's house after school. "Washing up all the time with bottled water is hard. It wears on you," Myles says.

All of the inconvenience, doubt, and fear add up to a stress that pulls the late winter days taut. "The spill has changed everything you do," notes Kim Good, Crystal's mother. She has stopped by her daughter's apartment, across town from Archie's place, on her way to the recycling center. The back of her SUV is loaded with translucent one-gallon jugs and a bright blue five-gallon drum. Later she'll head to a friend's house to refill the jugs she keeps. The drive takes an hour, round-trip. "You'd think it sounds easy — just use bottled water," she explains. "It's not. You have to figure out how you're going to do it. You have to plan and organize and then do your daily cleaning and cooking and everything else in this totally different way." 

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin
West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin discusses the chemical spill that led to state of emergency and water ban in the state capital and surrounding areas in Charleston, West Virginia.
AP Photo/Brendan Farrington

Although they're uneasy about it, Crystal's family has been going back to the tap. The convenience and low cost are too tempting. Her two oldest sons, Myles and Nickolas, are showering, as is Archie, who she shares custody with. Her mother and father are showering as well. So is Crystal. Bathing from the bottle is the most inconvenient aspect of being off the tap. "You can't get really clean," Crystal says. But her youngest son, Aiden, who's 10, resists using tap water. When his parents suggested he try taking a shower in it, the boy broke down sobbing. He said he didn't want to be in "chemical water."

Many other people are still wary of tap water. Randy Barrett is the mayor of Winfield, a small town in the affected area about twenty miles west of Charleston. Although he has started showering, he won't allow his grandchildren to use it. He doesn't want them to sit in a warm bath of tap water, even though one recent day it took him, his wife and their daughter over an hour to wash three young kids with bottled water heated on the stove. "I'm still not in a position to tell my daughter it's safe to give the water to her babies," he says. Breaking ranks with other government officials, Barrett flatly rejects that the water is okay and mistrusts the politicians and water company executives who say it is. "I don't believe it's too much to ask to have safe water," he says.

Rebecca Roth doesn't want to take any chances either. She is a part-time grant writer for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra who lives in Charleston with her husband and two year old daughter, Lucy. Sitting in the children's section of the public library, she thumbs through a book with Lucy, pointing out the puppies and kittens. "I certainly want things to be back the way they were before," she says. "But they're not." The only thing she'll use tap water for is the dishwasher. "I would rather hear later that I was overly cautious," the 39-year-old says.

To bathe, Roth uses a portable camp shower. The device is a thick plastic five-gallon bag that hangs from a showerhead and is connected to a tube, at the end of which is a spout. Showering this way is time consuming; it takes Roth 30 minutes to prepare a five-minute shower. The routine involves Roth warming a pot of bottled water in the kitchen, lugging it upstairs to the apartment's only bathroom, filling the bag, and then heading back downstairs to heat another pot full.

What really exhausts Roth, though, more than lost time and inconvenience, are her fears about the long-term health impacts of MCHM, and not just for her — she is four months pregnant. "We don't know what the effects will be in 20 years on Lucy and her potential sibling," Roth says, her eyes wide. "What will happen when they try to start their own families? Will they find out then that they have reproductive problems?" 

No one, not even the country's top chemical experts, know the answer to that question. People exposed to the tainted water know MCHM's immediate effects: nausea, vomiting, headaches, and eye, skin and lung irritation. But the chemical is one of about 62,000 that have never been thoroughly tested for toxicity in humans. MCHM, concocted by the Eastman Chemical Company, is used to wash impurities from coal to enhance its combustibility. The few existing studies of MCHM were performed in the 1990s by the chemical's manufacturer, and were never peer reviewed. Among Eastman's research was an experiment on the lethality of MCHM in adult rats — but that information can't readily be extrapolated to understand the effects on the people of Chemical Valley. None of Eastman's inquiries considered health effects in children, or at lower levels of exposure and over time, including MCHM's carcinogenic properties and potential to damage human reproductive systems. Consequently, residents don't believe the water is safe because no one can tell them how and to what extent it is unsafe.

west virginia water charleston
South Charleston Public Works employees assist local residents in obtaining bottled water in South Charleston, West Virginia.
AP Photo Michael Switzer

To mitigate their fears about the tap water, people have little choice but to devise their own rationales for its usage. These rules aren't based on science, but on perceptions and feelings — or, put another way, on superstitions, developed on the fly. Sharon Satterfield says she'll use the water in a year's time — based on her gut instinct, it will be safe by then. Archie has decided it's okay to start showering, but only if he keeps it to five minutes (a little longer if he has to shave). "I don't know what it's doing inside my body," Satterfield says. "But my skin doesn't have a rash, so that's what I'm going on right now." Similarly, to minimize her possible exposure to MCHM, Crystal takes a fraction of the showers she used to.

Because the MCHM leak has stopped, and since his hair isn't falling out, Crystal's father, Wesley Armstead, 59, considers the water "safe enough." Although he won't drink it, he believes that the MCHM has dispersed sufficiently that the water is no longer dangerous. Armstead, who does assignment direction at the local Fox television affiliate, WCHS, sees what he's doing as brave. "You've got to come out of the crisis some way. We've got to trust our water," he says. He admits his faith is not rooted in facts. "It's guesswork," he says. "But what are we to do?"

That sort of sentiment is what's pushing a lot of people to begin using the water again — they want their lives back. But Crystal's mom Kim is worried that people are going back to the tap not because anyone has proven that the water is clean, but because people can no longer manage the extra work and strain. In this way, she says, the disaster appears to be moving from the public sphere into the private one, the poisoned water seeping from muddy riverbanks into frazzled minds. Crystal also sees this dynamic, and likens the situation to a war of attrition: "The politicians are just waiting it out," she says. "We'll have to start using the water at some point." She's right about that. The future here is one where people turn on the taps, bathe and drink, unsure if the thing that gives them life is also leeching it away.

As the weeks pass, the West Virginia water crisis becomes less publicly visible. Governor Tomblin lifted the state of emergency at the start of March, ending the supply of free water. Public schools have uncovered their drinking fountains and stopped offering bottled water to students. Pregnant women have been told by the Centers for Disease Control it is okay to drink the water. Most of the signs informing customers that this restaurant or that hotel uses bottled water have been taken down. Many restaurants are back to using tap water for cooking and washing. The national media attention has waned. Even the company responsible for poisoning the drinking water, Freedom Industries, is disappearing. Having filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January, Freedom will be able to limit its potential payouts to the people affected by the spill. The site of the leak will also disappear — the state has ordered the company to demolish its storage facility. In late February, the CDC released a statement that at last used the word "safe" to describe the water. But it did this even though there have been no new studies on the health affects of MCHM. (It seems that governments, too, engage in magical thinking.) Rather than life actually returning to normal, it seems that many local, state and national authorities are set on creating conditions meant to seem normal, which, in its own sad way, is almost as troubling as the 10,000 gallons of chemicals that poured into the Elk River.

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