Update on How the Coal Processing Chemical Spill Continues to Disrupts Life in West Virginia

Guest Blog | January 23, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy
UPDATE: Ten days later, as of January 23, my mother-in-law is still not using her water.  The ban was lifted for her area about 3-4 days after my original post on January 13 (total 8-10 days), but most of the residents around her are still afraid to use the water.  The media, the Governor, the water company and others continue to provide such varying information that she has little confidence that her water is safe.  She has flushed her system several times over the past week, but says she’s not sure when she will feel comfortable again.  She continues to rely on water at my sister-in-law’s home (a few miles away) and is grocery shopping in areas outside the concerned area.


January 13, DAY 5, no water.

Two days after my mother-in-law headed home to West Virginia from visiting us in Atlanta for the holidays, she is experiencing day 5 without being able to drink or use water at her home for anything other than using the bathroom. I’m usually worried about her going home too tired or getting stuck in the snow when she comes for the holiday, but this year was a different worry.

After hearing the news on Friday morning, I immediately called to check on her. She lives right in the middle of an area known as “Chemical Valley” between Charleston and Huntington. Nine counties and the City of Culloden are currently affected by the Freedom Industries chemical spill and the resulting water use ban for the entire area served by West Virginia American Water.

Having lived there for more than 40 years and also usually expecting to lie low in January because of typical snowy weather she isn’t taking it too hard.  She’ll “make do”. You see, she has come to expect some environmental problems, but she has never dealt with any water issues before–mainly air concerns. To manage without water, she explains that she’s been taking what she calls “war baths,” and using hand sanitizer, and was also stocked up on bottled water. My sister-in-law, who lives just a few miles up the road in Hurricane and is served by a local water supplier, is also bringing her water and she’s also gone to shower at her house as well. She’s posted signs on her faucets reminding her not to turn them on because it’s just a habit and she accidentally turned it on on Friday but caught herself before washing up.

Most of her friends and family around have similar circumstances and are able to get help from other family members in the adjacent areas. She feels lucky that it’s just her and she is not having to take care of a whole family during this time and is concerned about how is could have impacted families with special needs.

As “compensation,” she has heard on the news that the water company will be offering 1,000 gallon credits to its customers. Once the water comes back on she expects to follow any procedures announced by the water company and let the water run for a while and do several empty loads of laundry before she attempts to use it.

Several lawsuits against the company have also been mentioned on the news, which offers her some assurance, but she is also concerned that companies like this, as they’ve done in the past, will just close down and reopen with a different name.

While she is taking everything in stride (by the way, she’s the nicest person I have ever met. I’m quite lucky), it deeply troubles me that companies like this have been able to operate so close to large water suppliers and that it’s already taken so many days to get information or stop it. And, the company isn’t really sure how the chemical affects public health. This is ANOTHER example of the negative lifecycle impacts of using coal for energy. It requires very toxic chemicals to make coal useable. Companies have a responsibility. Communities have faith that they will provide economic benefit, reasonable service without damaging our health.

Fortunately, as I am wrapping up this draft, the news is reporting that the water ban has now been lifted for some of the areas. However, it will still be several days before my mother-in-law is expected to be able to use water. While this is great news for the residents of West Virginia affected by this incident, I hope that aggressive action is taken and Freedom Industries is held fully accountable for the impacts of this spill.

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