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The West Virginia River No One Can Drink From (PHOTOS)

Survivors of the West Virginia chemical spill talk about how they are living with contaminated water and why they don't trust the government to fix the problem.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

Sheets of black plastic outline the area on the banks of the Elk River where 10,000 gallons of toxic 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) used in the coal processing industry spilled from these storage tanks, owned by Freedom Industries, on Jan. 9, 2014 into this tributary of the Kanawha River which cuts through the capitol Charleston.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

Nearly 300,000 residents from nine counties in the vicinity of Charleston, WV were without water after the spill occurred just upstream from the main West Virginia American Water municipal intake and treatment center. State officials issued a "do not drink" order late in the day after the spill occurred. On Jan. 13, the advisory was lifted but six weeks later, residents and some businesses still continue to use bottled water for drinking and cooking because they do not trust that the water is safe.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

In the parking lot behind the office of the Clean Water Hub, Ricki Draper from Greensboro, NC, loads cases of drinking water into another volunteer's car, called "Beluga," before the group heads out to distribute water Saturday at the mouth of the hollow at Three Fork near Seth.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

Loading up cars for delivery to a water drop at Three Fork in Seth, Clean Water Hub volunteer D Steele, of Matewan, WV, carries a case of bottled water out the back of the group's office and dispatch center.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

On the porch of his home in the hollow by Three Fork, Daniel J. Estep, talks about drinking the water accidentally after the "do not drink" order was issued on Jan 9. "I got a rash and fever and couldn't leave the house for days without throwing up," he says. Six weeks after the spill and five since the state has told residents it is ok to use the water, he only drinks bottled water but still doesn;t feel right. Daniel, a musician who plays in the local punk band When it Comes, was taught by his grandfather and is accomplished on any instrument, he says. "I was accepted to The Juilliard School but had to turn it down because my family didn't have the money." He spent a few years working in the coal mines but had to quit because of his health after being diagnosed with kidney disease - which his specialist told him was caused by toxins in the water from years drinking out of a polluted well. Now that his tap water has been tainted from the spill he doesn't want to chance drinking that either, even if they say it's safe, because he can't risk loosing his kidneys. "They give me until my 30s before I have to go on dialysis," he says.

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The hollow where Daniel J. Estep lives has been hit hard. Many around these parts have cancer, kidney disease or other ailments that residents attribute to the well water that they all once drank. For years the coal company dumped a cocktail of chemical solid and liquid waste in coal sludge impoundments that surround this small hollow. After people's wells were contaminated as a result, West Virginia American Water brought in a municipal line to the area in 2011 to provide clean, safe water. Now, since the chemical spill has contaminated that source of water as well, many here don't know if they will ever drink the water again.

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A mural on a storefront, just a block down from the Clean Water Hub's main base of operations on Coal River Rd. in Whitesville, celebrates The Mountain State's deep roots in coal mining and apple agriculture.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

In the living room at his home on Seth-Prenter Rd, near Seth, Bill Matheny, a coal miner and loader now retired at 89, tells how he and his wife Carol, 77, used their well water for years until "it was poisoned." That's when they switched to municipal water. Even though the state government issued the "ok to use" order for water on Jan. 13, Bill still doubts it is safe to drink. "How can you trust people who have been doing this [to us] for years and years and years?" Diagnosed with colon cancer last January and suffering from stage four kidney disease, Carol, sitting next to him, says she won't drink the water for fear of damaging her kidneys further, "If they declared it was safe I doubt I'd drink it." The couple both say that they have not smelled the telltale licorice scent of the chemical MCHM so many have detected coming from their taps but the water does leave an unusual greasy film on the pots, pans and sink basins which cannot be cleaned off. What will the people in the affected areas do in light of the current crisis? Bill replies, "People here have been kicked around by the coal company so long, they're tough, they'll get through it."

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Volunteer Casey Pegg from Pittsburgh (left), and Ben Fiorillio also of Pittsburgh (right), load Ben's pickup truck for home deliveries in Charleston.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

While she gets her hair done in her Charleston home by granddaughter Rahkeijah Cunningham (standing), Wandell Spurlock (seated), says she hasn't used the water since the "do not use" announcement Jan. 9. Even though the order was lifted Jan. 14, she still refuses to use it for drinking or cooking. She doesn't know if she will ever start drinking the tap water again after the spill. "I even boil my water for bathing and washing," she says.

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Gail Rectenwald of Sandyville, sits with samples of water from her well to give to Senator Manchin after the meeting at the Downtowner. Although her water was not affected by the chemical spill, she was there to lend support for new municipal water lines to be installed in the area. "We've never been able to drink our water," she says about their well. Her family has been drinking bottled water for 25 years because there have never been any alternatives, she says. The E. coli and iron levels in the water eventually got so high, they had to install a $7,000 water filtration system just to be able to wash dishes, clothes and take showers.

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Gail Rectenwald of Sandyville, holds jars filled with water samples from her well to give to Senator Manchin after his "Coffee and Common Sense" meeting at the Downtowner restaurant in Ripley.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks with residents of Jackson County during one of his "Coffee and Common Sense" meetings at the Downtowner restaurant in Ripley, WV, Feb. 20. In the wake of the Elk River chemical spill on Jan. 9, in which the southern end of this county was affected, Manchin spoke about the new Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act of 2014 and fielded questions from residents about water safety and the expansion of the municipal water system into the area.

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Water Hub volunteers also distribute spring water from a county outside the chemical spill's affected area at the distribution point at the mouth of the hollow at Three Fork near Seth, for those that wish to take it.

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A 'free water' sign taped up at the Amazing Grace Fellowship Church in Seth for a weekly Clean Water Hub distribution to residents.

James Fassinger

Clean Water Hub volunteer Ben Fiorillio of Pittsburgh, fills plastic jugs with tap water from a 200 gallon water buffalo tank mounted on the back of his pickup. The water was brought in from neighboring Raleigh County, whose public water system was not affected by the Elk River chemical spill.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

Russell Garretson of Seth, says he still has the licorice smell in his water and won't drink it. Even though he and his family drink and cook with bottled water, using the tap water to bathe and wash in, he has developed a serious rash all over his body from taking showers with it. He criticizes the authorities for the "slow response" in getting water to people. "How can you trust them,"he says. "The Feds don't give a hoot about us folks in West Virginia."

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

Russell Garretson of Seth, shows the rash on his ankle which he says is similar to what he has all over his body. Russell attributes the rash to taking showers using municipal water, even six weeks after the spill and five after authorities gave the OK to use it.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

Sherry Pinkham of Maryland, navigates the afternoon buffet line at Little India where supplies of bottled water are stacked underneath.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

Head chef at Little India, Sebastian John, uses only bottled water to cook with. The restaurant is one of the few in downtown Charleston that still only uses bottled water to prepare meals with.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

Timothy Gross carries a case of water he picked up at the East End water distribution point down Washington St. in Charleston. Gross and his wife, who is pregnant, are staying at the sojourner's family shelter in town. He explains that the crisis has made it difficult for the shelter to provide for the more than 50 people staying there because they insist on using only bottled water for drinking and preparing meals.

James Fassinger for The Daily Beast

The morning sun rises over the Coal River in Whitesville, home to the base of operations for the Clean Water Hub. Past experience with government and the failure of agencies that have been entrusted to protect them and their environment over the years are at the heart of distrust many West Virginians feel after the Elk River chemical spill. Although state authorities have declared the water OK to use, and the CDC has even used the word "safe" as of Feb. 24, a State of Emergency is still in effect for nine counties in the state, giving residents little confidence in the actual safety of their drinking water. Many with children are seriously considering moving out of state, while others are trying to figure out how they are going to pay for bottled water as long as they live in the affected counties. It seems that at least for the foreseeable future, until long-term studies on the water can be conducted, uncertainty about whether the water is actually safe to use for all purposes will continue.