Climate

One Year Later, West Virginia’s Historic Chemical Spill Is Still Hurting Small Businesses

CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Switzer

Local businesses were closed and unable to serve food and water after a chemical spill in the Elk River contaminated the public water supply in nine counties last January.

Four days after the January 9, 2014 chemical spill, Bluegrass Kitchen was one of the only open businesses in Charleston, West Virginia. The restaurant had been given special clearance to serve food by the Department of Health, and waitstaff were hustling to feed a hungry crowd. At the counter, locals buzzed behind cans of soda served with clear plastic cups and sandwiches served in red plastic baskets. The dishwasher was off limits.

“We don’t [usually] keep bottled water here at the restaurant, because of the wastefulness of it,” Bluegrass Kitchen’s owner, Keeley Steele, told ThinkProgress at the time. “But I see us probably keeping bottled water on hand for customers for quite a long time.”

That was one year ago. Now, on the anniversary of the day when 10,000 gallons of a coal industry chemical called Crude MCHM leaked out of a storage tank into the Elk River, spoiling the drinking water supply for 300,000 people, Steele and Bluegrass Kitchen have moved on — sort of. In an interview with West Virginia’s State Journal, Steele said she had to bring in a system called Drinkable Air, a machine that creates drinking water from humidity in the air, just so she could keep water on the tables. She said the restaurant didn’t stop using bottled water for coffee until “probably October.” Combined with the cost of other alterations, the business lost about $40,000, she said.

“I’m not real optimistic, really, about seeing any of that money,” she said.

In the month immediately following the spill, it was estimated that the impacted area took a $61 million economic hit — a figure representing approximately 24 percent of the economic activity in the nine-county area. Studies looking at the long-term economic impact of the spill have not yet been released, but some local businessowners told ThinkProgress they believe the spill is still costing them, both money-wise and otherwise.

Joy Gunnoe had just finished a day’s production of meat when she heard about the water ban one year ago. Gunnoe is the owner of her father’s 66-year-old sausage business perched in the heart of Charleston. Gunnoe Farms Sausage & Salad Company, opened by Joy’s father Raymond (lovingly nicknamed “Red”) in 1949, makes and sells a bevy of country pork sausages, chicken salads, potato salads, the works. They use a lot of water — water to boil the potatoes, water to cook the meat, water to blast clean the industrial-sized bowls.

Gunnoe

CREDIT: Gunnoe Farms Sausage & Salad Company, Facebook Page

When she heard that chemicals had infiltrated the water supply, she paused, then threw out 18,000 pounds of meat product and shut down the business for 13 days. She wouldn’t open until she knew the water was safe.

“I’m not going to put a product out that I wouldn’t feed to my own children or my own family,” she said. “That’s my family’s name on that label.”

The process of re-opening was jarring. Along with the rest of the affected area, she was told to flush her water system by the state government and water utility as a way of getting rid of the chemical. But the flushing process filled the business with the chemical’s famed licorice-smell, and Gunnoe — who has employees with cancer and other illnesses — was not told whether the chemical would have harmful effects if it was inhaled (The answer to that question is still not totally clear).

“It was sickening. I felt like I had exposed my employees,” she said. “It really floored me that I could have done people that I’ve known my whole life damage by following directions.”

Gunnoe said she lost $213,000 worth of business in the 13 days that she was closed, and has had to eat the cost of bringing in water from outside sources ever since. Insurance would not cover her losses from those two weeks, and soon after, Gunnoe said she was sued by a woman who claimed her mouth burned after eating Gunnoe’s product (the lawsuit was eventually found to be frivolous, she said). Faced with the threat of liability, Gunnoe hired a company to show her how to test her own water for chemicals.

All of those things cost Gunnoe money, though she’s not exactly sure how much. But the chemical spill, she said, cost her something even dearer.

“This kinda took the heart out of me,” she said. “I’ve loved this industry. But when you’ve had something like this that’s taken out of your control, and you could have mistakenly caused harm to the most vulnerable members of society — pregnant women, children — it floored me.”

Gunnoe said the last year has been so difficult that she almost caved, speaking secretly to a real estate broker about listing her father’s company for sale. Gunnoe recalls the conversation: “I hope you realize that your company has been devalued by about half,” she remembers the broker saying. “Nobody wants to buy a company that’s this close to [water utility] West Virginia American Water. The only way we can sell it is if you move it off-site.”

Being so close to the site of the chemical spill and the water utility that handled it proved difficult for other businesses, too. Nancy Ward, the owner of a 27-year-old retail shop in Charleston called Cornucopia, said Charleston was so dead in the weeks following the chemical spill that barely anybody entered the shop. Almost none of the nearby restaurants that usually drive business to her shop could open because of health hazards, and even if they could, Ward said she believed people wouldn’t have come out to eat anyway. No one — not even the state’s Governor — really knew whether the water was safe, even after the ban on tap water was lifted.

“We had never had any kind of a business like that in the history of our business,” Ward said, noting that profits that January were down 50 percent from the year before. “It took a really long time for us to pick back up.”

Since the spill, Ward said business has still been worse than ever. The summer season was particularly slow, something she suspects was due to families afraid of vacationing in the city home to the historic chemical spill. The state government apparently suspected this, injecting $1.2 million into the state’s Division of Tourism — more than doubling its spring advertising campaign budget — in the months following the spill. But Ward thinks it wasn’t enough for Charleston.

“We had to personally prop our business up,” she said. “We started putting our own personal money, liquidating our own assets, into the business.”

Ward noted that the chemical spill might not have been the be-all, end-all when it comes to dwindling business in Charleston. Water contamination issues had been prominent in the area for decades and were already driving people away, along with the steady decline of the state’s coal industry. The rise of internet shopping has probably also contributed to some of the retail store’s loses, along with increased local taxes. But the chemical spill certainly didn’t help, she said.

“[Business] has never come completely back [since the spill],” she said. “So it’ll be interesting to see this summer when people are deciding on their vacation plans — are they going to come here? Or will this still be working against us?”

Ward thinks that with the passage of SB 373 — a bill that would regulate the kind of above-ground chemical storage tanks that leaked into West Virginia’s water and require water utilities to better-protect their supplies — people will regain their confidence in the state’s ability to protect their drinking water supply and the environment, even if it means upsetting the coal and chemical industries. But Gunnoe is pessimistic.

“Things will never go back to the way they were when you lose that level of trust,” she said.