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Trial by Water: West Virginia's Elk River

The recent contamination illuminates just how tenuous and vital the safety of our water is.
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Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Deweese loads water into a vehicle at the Winfield, West Virginia, courthouse. (Photo: The National Guard/Flickr)

Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Deweese loads water into a vehicle at the Winfield, West Virginia, courthouse. (Photo: The National Guard/Flickr)

As a child, I drank freely from the tap and from the hose, knowing that the cold, clear water in both rose 28 feet from the well that my father dug himself. I fished and crabbed four rivers and the largest estuary in the country, waded barefoot through countless creeks, and every so often went with friends or family to swim in the dark, deep water of the ocean. Water always seemed holy, not only in the baptismal font, but along the shorelines and on the open bay, in the drinking glass and dripping from the showerhead.

I know exactly where my water comes from on the Eastern Shore of Maryland: the shallow well near the clothesline draws water from an aquifer on the Coastal Plain, where groundwater gathers after it flows through gravel, sand, and silt. It’s rare when I am traveling or visiting somewhere else that I have any idea about the source of the water flowing from the faucet. I suspect very few know the source of their drinking water when it comes from the tap, only the occasional moment when boredom leads them to read the label on plastic bottles.

But last week, 300,000 residents of West Virginia, about 16 percent of the state, learned the exact source of their water. When an odor of black licorice overtook Charleston on Thursday morning, authorities discovered that 7,000 pounds of a hazardous chemical had leaked into the Elk River. Residents of nine counties—their names like a hall of American heroes: Boone, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln—learned the exact source of their water when the governor informed them not to drink, cook with, or bathe with the water that came from the Elk River.

Like some tragic fable, American Water informed their customers that Freedom Industries, a self-described “full-service producer of specialty chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries,” had contaminated the water with a chemical that washes coal before it goes to market.

Four-methylcyclohexane methanol is a chemical about which little is known: acute health affects include dizziness, diarrhea, headaches, skin rashes, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; carcinogenic, mutagenic, and tetragenic effects are unknown.

Freedom Industries is a company about which little is known: it was founded in 1986 by two partners, one of whom filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and served jail time for tax evasion; it nearly had to relocate in 2009, when sand and silt clogged the Elk River and obstructed their barge traffic, but then a $400,000 stimulus package funded a dredging project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. With the channel dredged, Freedom Industries could continue transporting chemicals for the mining industry. It even got a contract from Georgia Pacific to distribute reagents.

Freedom Industries stored its chemicals in above-ground, 48,000-gallon tanks, one of which developed an inch-wide hole last week, through which four-methylcyclohexane methanol spilled, seeping through a cinder-block retaining wall into the Elk River.

It would be easy to ignore the Elk River Disaster, or worse, to dismiss it as a regional crisis. This tragedy may be unfolding in a state uniquely related to the coal and chemical industries, but no state is without industry and no water source is safe from contamination.

AMERICANS, WHETHER THEY LIVE in cities, suburbs, towns, or on the open prairie use between 80 and 100 gallons of water every single day: a gallon to brush our teeth, two gallons per minute in the shower, three gallons each time we flush the toilet, a gallon every time we wash our hands, almost 10 gallons per load or strainer of dishes, 25 gallons per load of laundry, at least five gallons per minute if we water our lawns or gardens, not to mention what we drink.

Water is not a luxury, but a necessity, and not for some, but for all. A decade ago it seemed like the greatest threat to our water supply was global warming, elevating sea levels to threaten fresh water supplies with salt and increasing the number and duration of droughts, but now it seems like before the aquifers and wells run dry, they’ll be poisoned.

Elk River and its surrounding towns and cities join Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Crestwood, Illinois, and Hinkley, California, in the atlas of American water disasters. If we want to stop adding pages to that atlas, then we need to get serious about protecting our water supply from chemicals and toxins.

On the very day that Freedom Industries leaked thousands of gallons of chemicals into the Elk River, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2279, the benignly titled Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act of 2013. While packaged as a bill to promote more cooperation between state and federal agencies during environmental clean-ups, the bill actually gutted the Solid Waste Disposal Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

Just hours after the Elk River Disaster was discovered, all three of West Virginia’s representatives voted in favor of the bill, which hamstrings the EPA by removing a requirement that the solid waste disposal regulations be reviewed every three years, prohibiting the preemption of state regulations by federal regulators, and requiring the federal government to confer with states before imposing the clean-up requirements and fines of Superfund.

Bills like the one passed last week by the House not only make environmental disasters more likely, they make it harder to hold companies and corporations responsible when they do. Polluters, not the public, should pay the costs of clean-up. We need more regulation, not less, if we are to prevent another disaster like Elk River.

Water has always been holy, not only for believers, but for everyone. It sustains life of every kind. Water is holy on the flesh and on the tongue, holy between muddy shores and sandy beaches, holy in the sharp cold of a kitchen faucet or garden hose, even holy in the clear plastic of a bottle. Its holiness is not our doing, though we are responsible for its continual desecration. Thousands in West Virginia are still living without water in their homes and restaurants, offices and schools. Their thirst should inspire us all, not only to know the source of our water, but to preserve and protect it with the courage and diligence of saints.