Dry Times

In West Virginia Water, an Environmental Nightmare Borders on Crisis

How long can 300,000 people go without potable water? A chemical spill by a coal facility has left a big swath of West Virginia in an unthinkable state—with no end in sight.


I’ve almost always entered Charleston, W. Va., via I-79, which traverses the 157 miles from Morgantown (my hometown) down to the state capital. It’s a drive over the course of which you enter the “real” West Virginia—the mountains get steeper and more muscular, the accents a little thicker, more genuinely Southern than Appalachian-twangy; when I was a kid, it was down there where it seemed they did most of the serious hard labor that the rest of the country associates with the state.

I went to school with many miners’ sons and daughters, but overall, Morgantown, being a college town and built on a somewhat gentler terrain that isn’t isolated from the rest of the world in the way much of the state is, has a reputation down in the hollers for being soft. When I went to basketball camp, the boys from the real West Virginia would make fun of us effete Morgantown kids. We let ’em yap and did our talking on the hardwood.

Anyway, as you wind down I-79, you’re in the deep, deep country, and then you turn a certain corner and bam, there it is, Charleston, the only place in the whole state that has something you might generously call a skyline. It’s a very nice medium-small city. Like any state capital, lots of lawyers. A nice independent bookstore. A hideous looking 1970s basketball arena, where the high-school state tournaments are held every year. A steakhouse across the street called The Fifth Quarter, which is good but ain’t cheap.

But right now the Fifth Quarter is closed. Everything is closed. Since the chemical spill Thursday morning at the plant about a mile and half up the Elk River from downtown, residents can’t use the water for anything except flushing the toilet and putting out fires. No dishwashing, no showers, no hand-washing, no drinks from water fountains, no eating of any food that required water in the preparation process. This was a chemical that’s used in the coal-washing process, at what we call down home preparation plants. State officials warn that if you try to take a shower, you’re likely to find the results quite painful.

All this applies to 300,000 people across eight counties. It extends through the Charleston exurb towns like St. Albans and Hurricane (HURR-kun, in the vernacular) into the small city of Huntington. It stretches both north and south from Kanawha (Kuh-NAW-wuh) County into the foreboding terrain where they’re slicing the tops off mountains to get the coal (look on Google Maps, the satellite version, and search for those big gray blotches) and where the roads are winding enough that it can take an hour to drive 20 miles, more if you get stuck behind a coal truck.

My friend Rob Byers, the executive editor of The Charleston Gazette, the excellent (and independent) flagship newspaper of the state, drives past the Freedom Industries plant on his way to work every day. Thursday morning, something was different. “The smell,” he told me. “It just smelled like Robitussin coming into the car.” Later that day, a colleague took a drink from the newsroom water fountain. Oh. My. God, he said. Another colleague didn’t believe him and went and took a drink. And that’s the last drink taken.

There haven’t been any deaths, and Byers described it as more of a major inconvenience than a full-out crisis. For now, the National Guard has started bringing in bottled water. No one can say, or is willing to say, how long things are going to stay like this. In a rather unfortunate coincidence, the chemical plant is just upriver from a water intake facility. So the water system has been heavily infiltrated. In essence, the whole region’s water system has to be flushed out until the chemical runs through (to where, let’s not even think). “Does everybody just have to run their water at the same time?” Byers wryly wonders.

Here’s something else to wonder about. Because the chemical is merely stored at the location and not manufactured there, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection apparently has no jurisdiction over the plant. That seems a little odd, given that this has fairly obvious ramifications for the environment, but that’s how things sometimes go down there. People generally shrug and accept it. But how many days can 300,000 people go without potable water before you can call it a full-blown crisis? We may find out.