CHARLESTON, W.Va. – More than a month after chemicals seeped into West Virginia’s biggest water supply, Jeanette Maddox would rather bundle up, drive to a shopping center parking lot and fill jugs of water from the spigot of a tanker truck than trust the tap in her kitchen.
This is Maddox’s new routine three times a week, what she considers a necessary burden to feel safe drinking water, cooking with it and making coffee.
For weeks, government officials have said the running water in nine counties is suitable for all daily needs. But Maddox, like many of the 300,000 residents whose water was contaminated Jan. 9, is not convinced.
She notes that officials waited four to 10 days, depending on the neighborhood, before allowing people to use their water. In the days right after Freedom Industries leaked chemicals into the Elk River in Charleston, officials said the water should be used only for flushing toilets and fighting fires.
Despite public pressure, officials have been reluctant to call the water safe and have started arguing that the term is subjective. Instead, they use phrases such as appropriate to use.
Well, they won’t use the word safe,’ said Maddox, who lives with her two daughters and two grandsons in Charleston. But the water is OK.’ We don’t know that.
Maddox is not alone, as visible signs of doubt about the water are everywhere. In Charleston, eateries display signs that say, We’re cooking with bottled water.
Outside water continues to be brought in by tanker trucks and military vehicles, under orders by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration. The public still demands it, Tomblin said.
It is impossible to predict when this will change, if ever, Tomblin wrote in a Jan. 29 request for more federal help.
The chemical licorice smell still wafts out of some showers, toilets and taps in homes and businesses. The smell resurfaced in five schools Feb. 5 and 6, and the district temporarily shut them down. In one case, a teacher fainted and went to the hospital.
Today, doctors are still advising some patients, such as people with chronic conditions or compromised immune systems, to avoid the water on a case-by-case basis, said Kanawha County health officer Dr. Rahul Gupta.
Tomblin has hired a University of South Alabama researcher to study the threat of the chemical, federal safety standards for it, whether the chemical’s strong licorice odor outlasts any danger it poses, and how the chemical affects pipes in homes.
In a region nicknamed Chemical Valley because of the industry’s huge footprint in greater Charleston, even residents who have lived here their entire lives are concerned.
At a legislative public meeting two weeks ago, several people said they’re considering moving. Before the spill, people were already leaving West Virginia at one of the highest rates in the country.