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West Virginians Confused About Water Safety, Despite State's All Clear


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.

This week, the company responsible for a toxic chemical leak into the Elk River in West Virginia announced that a second previously undisclosed chemical was present and may also have slipped into the water supply - this after people in and around Charleston, West Virginia, had already spent days avoiding the tap water only to have officials declare it's safe for drinking last week.

If this sounds like a bunch of mixed messages, it is. Ken Ward is a reporter for The Gazette in Charleston where he lives. He joined me to explain how people are reacting to the confusion.

KEN WARD JR.: If you go to grocery stores here locally, you see people buying carts full of bottled water. If you go to restaurants, people are asking if they're cooking with bottled water. Restaurants are putting up press releases and putting signs up saying, hey, we're using bottled water. Come here and eat.

Earlier this week, I asked Governor Tomblin about the sight of people continuing to get bottled water, even though the state was telling them the water was safe, and asked him if he thought that that meant that people had lost trust in these agencies that are supposed to ensure our health. And the governor's response was to say, well, you know, it's really a personal decision. It's up to you if you want to drink this water. And if you're uncomfortable with it, then don't drink it.

MCEVERS: Are you drinking the water?

JR.: I and my family are not drinking the water.

MCEVERS: So despite the new chemical, they're still saying - officials are still saying it's safe. The first chemical is dropping. The second chemical isn't posing a safety risk.

JR.: Correct. But the other thing that's happening is that the water company told residents, what you need to do is flush out your home plumbing system. They told us to run the hot water for 15 minutes, the cold water for five minutes. Then you can go about your business like nothing ever happened. But we're hearing reports from lots of people that even after they do that, they continue to smell this chemical. It has a sweet sort of licorice smell to it. And the explanation from the state is, well, it has a lower odor threshold than the health threshold.

The problem with that is the ATSDR, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, advised the state early on, tell people to flush their home plumbing until they don't smell it anymore. And the state didn't follow that recommendation and really hasn't provided that clear of an explanation for why. And I think that further kind of eroded people's trust here.

MCEVERS: Was there a silver lining in all this? Do you think that these revelations, will they change things? Will they make these agencies and these companies better about disclosure in the end?

JR.: I mean, first of all, it almost always in our society unfortunately takes a terrible disaster for us to react and do things. The history in West Virginia is of coal mining disasters, of explosions and underground mines that killed hundreds of workers. And only after those terrible things do we really kind of reform things and try to make things safer.

What I and my neighbors in Charleston are going through, this uncertainty about what's in our water and going for a number of days or a week without our tap water - there's a lot of people in the coalfields of West Virginia that that's their life every day and has been for a long time. And it's very easy for people that live here in Charleston to kind of ignore those problems.

And one of the things that I'm seeing is a lot of folks who might have, you know, a month ago poo-pooed these concerns are now starting to think twice about this. And, you know, maybe that will change the politics here and the regulatory climate here a little bit.

MCEVERS: Ken Ward is a reporter for The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. Ken, thank you so much.

JR.: Thank you.

MCEVERS: West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said today he has ordered the company responsible for the chemical spill to dismantle and remove all aboveground storage tanks from its facility on the Elk River. That process is set to begin March 15th. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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