West Virginians still don’t trust their water, a month after spill

Many residents continue to use bottled water — a new marker between haves and have-nots

Water being distributed at the South Charleston Community Center in Charleston, W.Va., Jan. 10, 2014.
Lisa Hechesky/Reuters

One month ago today, hundreds of thousands of residents of Charleston, W.Va., and surrounding areas woke up to the news that their water had been contaminated by a coal-processing chemical that had accidentally spilled into the nearby Elk River the day before. Some continued to drink and wash with the water, despite its strange licorice odor.

But even after state authorities proclaimed the water safe and lifted the restrictions on water use for all counties on Jan. 19, people remain distrustful of what is coming out of their taps, and many have lost faith in federal, state and local officials.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed the water “appropriate for use,” it is advising pregnant women to drink bottled water until the concentration of the chemical, MCHM, falls below a yet-to-be-determined level in tap water.

“Let me be clear: I have been deeply frustrated and disappointed with the halting and slow flow of information West Virginians need to make good decisions about the use of their tap water,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, said in a statement to Al Jazeera, in which he also criticized lax regulation of the chemical industry.

Many West Virginians remain uneasy and say they would rather be safe than sorry. Some vow never to drink tap water again.

“If it’s so safe, then why do we still have the licorice smell? We are still using bottled water,” said Melissa Harper, 32, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter with an immune disorder that leaves her vulnerable to a less-than-clean environment.

“I have about 15 cases of bottled water in my kitchen at all times,” Harper said. “I will not be caught in a situation without access to clean water again.”

But with mass distribution of emergency water now ended, most people in the region have been fending for themselves or relying on handouts that are becoming harder and harder to find.

For the well off, the trials of the last month have been a persistent inconvenience. For the middle class, the experience has been a nerve-racking nuisance. For the very poor, it is a health concern. And for the homeless, it is just another one of many daunting and daily threats.

“One of the most common questions these days is, ‘Are you drinking the water?’ And I think the most common answer is, ‘No, I’m not drinking the water,’” said Jeff Allen, director of the West Virginia Council of Churches.

He isn’t drinking the water either.

Charity organizers like Allen say income level determines who uses public water and how they use it, with most middle-class Charleston residents refusing to drink from the tap but using the water for quick showers or cleaning dishes.

“This isn’t cheap,” said Charleston mom Caitlin Howley, 41. “We are now spending between $20 and $30 dollars per week on bulk water from Sam’s Club. We're fortunate because we can afford this, but many people cannot — and they must rely on water distributions, which continue to diminish.”

Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House, a social-justice organization that advocates for the poor and homeless, said that for the working poor, getting clean water is a major challenge.

“We’re working with people who are living paycheck to paycheck and several receiving Social Security income, and just helping them get water to bathe their children, that’s the big issue,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t bathing their children in the shower.”

Covenant House also runs a day shelter, where bottled water is available.

For people without stable housing, there are many issues during a harsh winter that trump concerns over water safety, said Allen.

“If you don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight, you’re not going to be able to make a decision about the water,” she said.

After eating food probably prepared with tap water and suffering headaches and nausea, Allen isn’t taking any chances. Her household drinks bottled water exclusively.

But even for people with homes and steady jobs, using bottled water for everything just isn’t practical.  

“Anger, anxiety and stress were the baseline in our household for the first couple weeks,” said Joe Merchant, 40, who lives in South Charleston with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. “Although we will never drink or cook with the water again, we have essentially been forced to use water that scares the hell of out us for occasional bathing and cleaning, because no one actually knows what’s in it and at what level.”

Howley, the mother of two daughters ages 14 and 17, said some West Virginians, including her, are considering leaving the state for good.

“Very sadly, a number of people are considering whether to stay or not. I want West Virginia to pay for my bright and wonderful children to attend college here, but after that, and if things don’t change meaningfully, I intend to move elsewhere,” she told Al Jazeera.

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