Kellie Raines is only using her water to shower, something she doesn’t think she should be doing, “but I really don’t have another choice,” she said. Nearly one month after a massive chemical leak was discovered in Charleston, West Virginia — just upstream from the water intake facility that provides drinking water to Raines’ home and to the homes of 300,000 West Virginians — residents and experts alike remain concerned about the water they’ve repeatedly been told is safe.
“The scariest part is that we really just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Raines said. “All of us are using the water now and we’re okay now but in 30 years — I’m young, I don’t want to in 30 years realize that I have cancer because of this water.”
On Thursday, health officials received complaints from 14 Kanawha County schools about the licorice-like smell characteristic of crude MCHM, a chemical mixture used in the coal production process. Several schools were closed and children sent home, all after the buildings had been classified as ‘non-detect’ and given the green light to flush the system and reopen.
So what’s happening? “Our analytical capabilities have limitations,” explained Marc Glass, principal at the environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies. The Morgantown, West Virginia-based firm has been conducting its own testing of water in private homes and businesses and the results have proven to Glass that “our noses can detect the presence of some component of the crude MCHM or something that was spilled from Freedom … at a lower level than our chemistry can detect.”
Simply put, ‘non-detect’ doesn’t mean the water is chemical-free.
The past four weeks have brought more questions than answers for West Virginians. Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the spill, has increased the amount of chemicals it believes spilled into the water and even revealed that an additional chemical spilled and wasn’t reported to authorities for 12 days.
And the mixed messages from authorities continue to leave residents unsure of what to do or who is looking out for their safety. “It kind of confuses me because the governor is saying the water is safe and everything but he’s still having bottled water sent here,” said Raines. “I don’t understand it.”
In a Wednesday press conference involving several state and federal authorities, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said that while he can’t tell people its 100 percent safe, he is using the water and has been drinking it “for the last couple weeks.”
Very little is known about crude MCHM and the effect it may have on humans, a fact that left state and federal officials scrambling to set a ‘safe’ limit for the chemicals in the water supply. In the days after the spill, state officials set a safety threshold of 1 part per million for crude MCHM in the water supply, based on consultations with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC’s recommendation, however, was derived from a study conducted by Eastman Chemical company, which only tested the mixture’s main ingredient and did not test the substance on humans.
Dr. Tanja Popovic, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, defended the agency’s 1 ppm calculation during Wednesday’s press conference, saying of the water, “You can bathe in it, you can drink it. You can use it however you’d like.”
Statements from officials asserting the safety of the water are less than reassuring to a public that has dealt with a lack of clear information regarding what spilled, how much, and how dangerous it may be since day one. In the first hours and days “the public should have been assured that there’s a commanding understanding of everything that has been released into the environment as a result of this spill,” said Glass.
In the rush to get water service reinstated as quickly as possible, the odor concern was likely underestimated. “It was probably not the best public health decision to allow opening of these zones while there’s still a measurable presence — and when I say measurable I should say detectable — presence of this chemical in the drinking water system,” he continued. “Especially given that we don’t have solid science on the health effects.”
While hindsight is 20/20, the focus should have been on ridding the entire system of crude MCHM and any other potential chemicals before it was returned to service, “rather than trying to get it down to some safe level,” said Glass. “Because safe is a relative term.”
Safe is indeed a relative term in Charleston, where residents like Kellie Raines can only say, “I don’t know what will make me trust the water again.”
Looking forward, Raines is concerned about things she’s heard regarding the potential for chemicals to remain in pipes and water supplies for an extended period of time. While the CDC’s Dr. Popovic said on Wednesday that long-term impacts seem unlikely, Marc Glass is more cautious. “Several months down the road, it won’t be in the system at any detectable level … including our noses,” but there’s a possibility the chemicals will last longer than that due to what Glass refers to as ‘unintentional storage.’ Depending on how the chemicals interact with the particular pipes or water storage containers, it could continue to be stored in the system long after an initial green light to flush the system has been given.
With so many lingering uncertainties, a crisis like this should be met with “an overly conservative response,” Glass emphasized. “The public tolerance for knowledge of a contaminant, something that’s not supposed to be in your water, is just about zero.”
Indeed, Raines seems to run out of hope that the public’s faith in their water supply can be restored. “I honestly don’t feel like anytime in the near future the water is going to be acceptable for everybody.”