Water Crisis Not Over After West Virginia Chemical Spill

It’s been called one of the most serious episodes of drinking water contamination in U.S. history. Four months after thousands of gallons of the coal-washing chemical MCHM spilled from an unregulated above-ground storage tank into the Elk River, many people in and around Charleston, West Virginia, are still using bottled water.

Water bans after the Jan. 9 spill lasted as long as nine days in some Charleston communities. But residents continue to report that the water smells like licorice and it has sent people to the emergency room. A recent article in The New Yorker that profiled the power of the coal industry in West Virginia called the spill an accident with no clear ending, with the most basic question — “Is the water safe?” — unanswered.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, who runs the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County health departments in Charleston, West Virginia, speaks with Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti about the ongoing water crisis.

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  • Rahul Gupta, MD, runs the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County health departments in Charleston, West Virginia. He also teaches at the West Virginia University School of Medicine and the University of Charleston School of Pharmacy.
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We want to check in now on Charleston, West Virginia, four months after one of the most serious episodes of drinking water contamination in U.S. history. Recent tests show that there are still traces in the water of a coal washing chemical that leaked into the Elk River at the beginning of this year. The initial crisis affected the water supply for more than 300,000 people. And the ongoing problems are chronicled in a local song called "Aquapocalypse."


T.J. KING: (Singing) Well, I was sitting with my family at Harding's Restaurant, all drinking water because you that that stuff's free. When our waitress came and said the water's tainted, and we're closing for state of emergency. So we went...

CHAKRABARTI: All right. It's a little lighthearted song there. But the chemical, whose shorthand name is MCHM, leaked into the river from an unregulated aboveground storage tank, sending people to the hospital and making the water smell and taste like licorice. Since then, West Virginia has passed a new law regulating those storage tanks. But for many Charleston residents, there's still enough concern that they're using bottled water. And until recently, the city's health director was doing the same.

Dr. Rahul Gupta runs the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County health departments in Charleston, West Virginia. And, Dr. Gupta, let me just ask you this simple question: Is the water safe to drink?

DR. RAHUL GUPTA: Well, according to the real and early estimates provided to us by the CDC and then much more stringent recent estimates provided to us from independent scientists panel, the definition of safe seems to have been met. Obviously, there are still people who are a little bit conflicted about the safety. But scientifically speaking, the water does seem to be safe to drink, cook, and consume in any way possible.

Now, for the data that we have from - anecdotal data through surveys, well, we found that, ending March 1st, only five percent people were really drinking the water. Now, we are finding more and more people are starting to utilize the water. It's been a slow process, unfortunately. But I think more and more people are developing their trust back in their water.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, this is one of the sort of tragic and interesting aspects of this story is that it seems as if, and correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems as if individual West Virginians have been asked to make a lot of decisions, you know, for their own good. I mean, at one point in time, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, you know, he issued warnings about the water but then, later on, basically adopted a more cautious position, saying it was up to people to decide whether or not to use the water.

And so I'm just wondering how individuals are supposed to be able to make an informed decision about something as fundamental as the quality of their drinking water.

GUPTA: Well, you're very correct, Meghna, in that because this was a very unprecedented event as well as historic in nature to have 300,000 people be impacted where they could not use their water. We still - as a system, as a nation - have learned that when large scale water contamination events such as this happen, we may not be in the best position to respond to them. We had a lot of delayed information coming. There was some information that was coming that was conflicting in nature.

We'd learned recently that the chemical has been in the water for way longer than anyone ever anticipated. And as a result, people did become a lot skeptical. You know, people in West Virginia were not willing participants to this experiment. They understand it happened. However, what they want to do is get beyond this challenge and also provide some basis for learning to other communities in the future.

CHAKRABARTI: Do officials have any guess as to why the chemical is so persistent in water even - in the water there even these many weeks and months after the original spill?

GUPTA: Sure. So there are several factors here. We know for a fact that the water intake that's coming from the river no longer contains the chemical in significant numbers that we can detect. However, the water in the pipes of people at home still has the chemicals. So there are several explanations for that. One is that we found from the water company itself its contaminated filters were perhaps pushing the chemical, in very small quantities, back into people's homes. Second is not adequate or appropriate flushing of the system.

Because we understand that people are having very low concentrations in their water of the chemical up to three months after the impact, we realize this is no longer a short-term exposure problem. This becomes a longer-term exposure. And when that happens, the safety factors and other things, it's a game changer. And we still do not have the data as to what concentration is still safe for longer-term exposure to this chemical. There are, in fact, no scientific studies for long term, especially no studies in humans.

CHAKRABARTI: And finally, Dr. Gupta - and again, I ask this of you as a public health official - do you have sympathy for those residents who might be throwing up their arms and saying, why was basically an above ground storage tank that contained chemicals used in coal washing anywhere near the Elk River to begin with, that it shouldn't have been within site or possibility of contamination of what is a known drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of people?

GUPTA: I do understand that. And, in fact, the state law that has now become state law - the Senate Bill 373 - will address and further regulate the aboveground storage. It's also important to understand that I also don't believe that was the only leaking tank into a source water in the United States. So it's very important to highlight that there are, you know, changes coming in Congress with the federal Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act that's moving along. And it can't be emphasized enough. For one, we're not well-prepared to respond to such large-scale drinking water contamination events. It's also important to understand that our chemical storage facilities need to be better regulated and monitored.

And finally, it's important to implement policies and protections around our sources of water across the nation in a unified manner rather than sporadically. In other words, water safety and water security should be a national priority, not from only natural disaster standpoint, but also from man-made ones.

CHAKRABARTI: Dr. Rahul Gupta runs the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County health departments in Charleston, West Virginia. He also teaches at the West Virginia School of Medicine and the University of Charleston School of Pharmacy. Dr. Gupta, thank you so very much for joining us.

GUPTA: Thank you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: And you heard Dr. Gupta there say that he thinks there should be drinking water safety programs at the federal level, and drinking water safety should become a national priority, which might even invite more regulation. We're wondering what you think about that. Let us know at hereandnow.org or on our Facebook page, facebook.com/hereandnowradio.

You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.