On January 9, 2014, around mid-morning, Charleston, West Virginia residents began noticing a sweet, licorice smell in the air. The source was a leaking chemical storage tank owned by Freedom Industries, at a facility alongside the Elk River, less than two miles upstream from its convergence with the Kanawha River in Charleston. Before it was stopped, about 10,000 gallons of chemicals had flowed into the Elk River, mostly composed of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, which is used in coal “cleaning,” with a smaller amount of polyglycol ethers, or PPH, used for a similar purpose. The chemicals quickly contaminated the water source for West Virginia American Water, and according to the company its filters failed after a few hours, poisoning the water in parts of nine counties and affecting about 300,000 people’s tap water. Before 6pm on January 9th, WV American Water issued a “do-not-use” order and Governor Earl Tomblin declared a state of emergency.
In the following days, as thousands of people became ill from a chemical whose effects were largely unknown and untested, representatives from Freedom Industries, WV American Water, and various state and federal government agencies gave the public and the media inconsistent, often contradictory statements about whether the water was safe to drink or use in other ways. Even on January 20th, eleven days after the spill, Governor Tomblin refused to say whether or not the water was safe: “I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use it.”
Some counties and cities distributed free water to those in need, mostly for very short periods of time, and many thousands of citizens who could afford to do so, purchased water for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. The WV Clean Water Hub was launched to help facilitate people supporting each other to access clean water, first as a Facebook page, and it soon developed into a project coordinated by volunteers from several different community and environmental groups. Volunteers with the Clean Water Hub began investigating at South Central Regional Jail in February 2014.
As the months pass, news stories continue to emerge about water authorities not sufficiently flushing their systems or properly changing their filters — and many West Virginians still won’t drink their tap water, and still won’t trust what the government and the water company tell them. Many others have resumed drinking their tap water because they have no choice. Freedom Industries has declared bankruptcy in an attempt to avoid any financial responsibility for harming people’s health. And because of lax governmental regulation, no one really even knows what the long-term health effects of MCHM are. It’s not clear how this will end — but it’s not too late to try to hold people accountable.
For more information, we recommend “Trouble on the Elk: A chronology of the West Virginia Water Crisis” from the Charleston Daily Mail website, which brings together reporting and information from a wide variety of sources, in chronological order.