Water Contamination In West Virginia May Have Started Weeks Ago, Residents Believe

CREDIT: Emily Atkin

The Kanawha river is seen from Trojan Landing Marine, a boat storage and maintenance facility where workers say they have smelled the chemical since December.

CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA — When Rich McGervey first heard about the major chemical spill into his water supply, he immediately thought of his five-year-old daughter.

“My mind starts running in reverse,” McGervey, a Charleston-based attorney, said. “She had taken a bath Tuesday night, and Wednesday night. And Wednesday night as we were going to bed, she rips up her shirt and starts scratching all over and she says ‘my whole body is itching!’ And she’s never done that before.”

The incident has McGervey thinking that this chemical might have spilled into his water long before it was reported on Thursday.

He’s not the only one.

Details surrounding the timeline of the chemical spill, which contaminated potable water for 16 percent of the state, have been disheartening for many local residents. Officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection have said that they were alerted to the spill on Thursday morning, when residents began complaining about a licorice-like smell. DEP officials were on site at the Freedom Industries store facility at about 11:05 on Thursday morning, more than 30 minutes after Freedom Industries President Gary Southern said his employees discovered the spill. Freedom Industries didn’t report the spill until noon, and residents weren’t informed of the water ban until around 6 p.m.

Some question whether Freedom Industries’ failure to report the spill immediately was a breach of its responsibilities, or whether the company simply fell into a loophole that exempted it from needing to report the spill immediately. Others, though, worry that this spill is just the only time anyone has actually noticed that Freedom Industries has been polluting their water.

James Vermillion, a Charleston resident who lives about a quarter mile from the storage tanks on the Elk River, said this isn’t the first time he’s smelled licorice in the air. Vermillion said he often smells it at work, a boat storage and maintenance facility which borders the Kanawha river.

The first time he noticed it was in early December, Vermillion said, when he walked out on his back porch. He didn’t think anything of it at the time. After all, he said, having strange smells waft by your house isn’t uncommon when you live in Chemical Valley.

So when he heard that the chemical spilled last week smelled like licorice, that day back in December immediately came to mind.

“It was just as strong that day as it was on Thursday,” he said.

Vermillion said he’s worried that the chemical has gotten into the river in the past, and that residents weren’t notified.

“We’ve all been drinking this for weeks,” he said. “My concern is, how big of a leak was it before? … What if it were something that could have killed someone?”

Another employee at the marina on the Kanawha River, where Vermillion works, said he’s positive he smelled it about a month ago, too. His hatred of licorice, he said, makes it hard for him to confuse that smell with anything else.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection didn’t respond immediately to requests for comment on previous spills at the Freedom Industries plant. But a DEP inspector did tell Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette that the immediate clean-up effort was “a Band-Aid approach.”

“It was apparent that this was not an event that had just happened,” DEP air quality inspector Mike Kolb told Ward, adding that they had received complaints of odors from the site before.

But even if the chemical hasn’t spilled before, the latest spill doesn’t come as a surprise to Keeley Steele, owner of Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston.

“I think for the people that follow what’s going on environmentally, I think we’ve all been kind of waiting for something like this to happen anyway,” she said. “So for all of us, it’s an indication that our fears have been validated. So it’s a call to arms — we’re upset, we’re angry, and we feel left behind.”