When’s the Water Safe to Drink? What WV Officials are Saying About Conditions

After coal processing company Freedom Industries accidentally spilled chemicals into the Elk River, on January 9th, officials in West Virginia banned residents in several cities from using tap water for anything other than flushing toilets.

When's the Water Safe to Drink- What WV Officials are Saying About Conditions

West Viriginia chemical spill left 300,000 people without a clean water supply. Image source: AP/Tyler Evert

Officials lifted their tap water ban ten days after the spill; however, more than a month later, residents still have justifiable concerns. They say they can still smell the chemical when they turn on their taps. The ban has been lifted – but is the water safe to drink?

The Spill

On January 9, Freedom Industries accidentally leaked out 4-methylcyclohexanemethonal (MCHM). The chemical was leaked upstream of a water intake and treatment center that distributed water to 9 counties in the area. (MCHM) is a chemical foam that is used by Freedom Industries to clean and remove impurities in coal. The chemical leaked from a one inch hole in the bottom of a storage tank. The tank had a 40,000 gallon holding capacity. The experts from Pacific Hose & Fittings say this gives us a better understanding of the importance of sturdy equipment in these types of industrial plants.

What the Officials Are Saying

By January 13, health officials suggested that the water was safe. Just days after they gave most residents the go-ahead to drink it, however, they cautioned pregnant women against doing so. Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Director Dr. Rahul Gupta said that the reason for this was that there were a lot of “unknowns” about the chemical that had been spilled. He indicated that officials did not really know what all of its effects on humans might be.

On February 10, State Health Commissioner Letitia Tierney announced that the water in West Virginia was “useable for every purpose.” However, she said that answering questions about safety was difficult because everyone had a different view of what “safe” actually meant.

The CDC has approved tap water usage – but it has stopped short of calling it safe. According to CNN, it says instead, that based on tests on animals, the amount of chemicals in the water were low enough so that people could probably drink the water without experiencing adverse effects.

Residents Still Wary

Despite the fact that some officials have declared that the water is now safe to drink, or perhaps because their assurances have seemed so uncertain, West Virginia residents remain wary.

One resident told newspapers that she did not think she would ever drink tap again. She had given the water to her disabled daughter through a feeding tube throughout the day after the spill, before officials had warned people not to drink the water. Each time, she had become violently ill. Because of her daughter’s experience, she says she will not even give tap water to her pets. Others told newspapers that nothing officials could say would ever induce her to drink tap water in the area again.

Until officials are more certain about how harmful the chemical is, residents will never be sure if their water is safe to drink or cook with.