One year ago Thursday, 300,000 people in and around the West Virginia capital of Charleston woke up to find their tap water smelled like licorice and had a faint blue tint. As the eerie odor wafted through their homes, only a few knew that thousands of gallons of the coal-processing chemical 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) had spilled into the Elk River, from which the city draws its water.
Government health officials issued stark warnings against drinking or using the water in any way. Freedom Industries, the chemical company responsible for the MCHM spill, has gone bankrupt and its executives face criminal charges. But today residents of Charleston and surrounding areas — some of them remote, rural and impoverished — remain wary of their water and the system that allowed the spill to happen.
“Those who can afford it are still buying bottled water,” said area resident Vivian Stockman, spokeswoman for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, an alliance of activist groups. “I know a lot of people take much quicker showers, and some haven’t gone back to taking baths. The trust in the water quality is not back yet.”
Stockman and others in West Virginia say there are water “haves” and “have-nots” now. Some people can afford to purchase bottled water for drinking, while others are priced out. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (DCD) insists the water is safe to drink, as do the state and city, but the unease is still there.
“There’s a lot of people who worry about the water, but they don’t have much of a choice in Boone County,” said Dustin White, 31, a community organizer and environmental activist who has been critical of the role the coal industry plays in the region’s culture and politics.
White is from Boone County, south of Charleston. The area is dotted with tiny coal-mining towns tucked into valleys at the end of winding mountain roads — beautiful scenery that surrounds crushing poverty, and groundwater long contaminated by pollution from coal mining.
Many county residents can either drink foul-tasting well water or take their chances with public water, he said.
White said he will “never forgive or forget” the company and officials he holds responsible for the water crisis.
“I had to take care of my dying father without water,” he said. “And that’s something no one should have to do.”
His father, Teddy, 65, passed away in March of 2014.
“I don’t feel any better about it now. It happened and we all lived through it,” said Helen Gray, 64, a retired speech pathologist from Charleston. “I don’t think that the government or whoever is responsible for all this, I don’t know if they have enough people to inspect everything. I feel like it could happen again anytime.”
Gray said that she has gotten into the habit of drinking bottled water, and since authorities lifted the warnings she uses public water for showering, gardening and occasionally drinking.
Joe Merchant, 41, said his experience after the spill — handing out water to the city’s poor alongside his 6-year-old daughter, Madeline — opened his eyes to the “destitute” conditions some in Charleston endure, often unable to drive or walk to places with safe water when the warnings were still in place.
“We had the ability to choose to not cook or drink our water,” he said, referring to his family. “I don’t think a lot of people had that choice.”
He now lives in Lubbock, Texas, after accepting a new placement with the National Weather Service. While he had never expected to live in Charleston long-term, he said the chemical spill and its consequences played a role in his decision to leave.
“We didn’t bathe in it for six weeks and we never cooked with it or drank it,” he said.
Stockman said that most people in the area lay responsibility for the spill on the chemical company involved, and don’t blame the coal industry. But she and other environmental activists say the 10,000 gallons of MCHM that leaked from a broken tank wouldn’t have been there but for the coal business.
White calls this “coal country Stockholm syndrome,” meaning people are reluctant to criticize an industry that provides some of the area’s few well-paying jobs.
Still, Stockman remains optimistic — in a way — that something positive may come out of the spill.
“This has exposed the level of coal industry influence in West Virginia politics, and it has woken a lot of people up. It really galvanized a lot of people to become more active in democracy. We’re just waiting to see if we can get people involved in this upcoming legislative session,” she said.
The stakes are high, activists say. After the spill, the West Virginia legislature passed a law in March regulating above ground chemical tanks. But in November houses of the state capitol went to Republicans, and many activists fear the new legislative class could undo efforts to regulate industry.