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In West Virginia, water galore but not to drink

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 downpour. Logs and branches floated downstream, toward the junction with the Kanawha River in the heart of this city. Potholes on the country roads had turned into puddles.

As they say: Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

"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.

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.

Today 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, down a 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.

"We see light at the end of the tunnel," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Sunday afternoon.

The infrastructure 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 to upgrade the tank containment area. But those upgrades had not begun.

Meanwhile, Freedom Industries executives have kept a low profile.

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, seven had been admitted for treatment, none in serious condition, according to the state's tally.

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 health officials to reopen.

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.

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."

Employees of the South Charleston Public Works Department help residents get water on Sunday, the fourth day of a crisis.

Associated Press

Employees of the South Charleston Public Works Department help residents get water on Sunday, the fourth day of a crisis.

In West Virginia, water galore but not to drink 01/12/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 13, 2014 12:34am]
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