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West Virginians Still Stocking Up On Water, Fearing Pollution


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

There are some basic things we take for granted, at least in the developed world, that the air we breathe or the water that flows into our homes won't make us sick. So imagine you turn on your local TV news to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: State of emergency in several counties tonight after a chemical spills into the water supply. Good evening. I'm...

RATH: In Charleston, West Virginia, this was the news on Thursday, January 9th. A one-inch hole had opened up in the side of a chemical storage tank and a substance known as crude MCHM was gushing out into the Elk River and the water supply of some 300,000 people.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do not drink, use, bathe with, cook with or do laundry with water from West Virginia American Water. The only thing that you can use it for at this time is to flush your toilet or for fire protection.

RATH: That was more than a month ago. State and federal authorities have said that the water is now usable for all purposes. But in some areas, the tap water still has a chemical odor, leaving a lot of ordinary West Virginians and some health authorities wondering, is the water really safe? That's our cover story today.


RATH: Despite assurances from government officials, many people in West Virginia are still going to great lengths to avoid the tap water. NPR's Brian Naylor went to Charleston. And as he reports, life there is anything but normal.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Nate May's Prius is loaded down with water. The back is filled with boxes, each holding three one-gallon jugs that he's just bought at Wal-Mart. He and other volunteers are driving around Charleston, dropping off jugs to people who have contacted his group, the West Virginia Clean Water Hub. It's a citizen effort operating on donations.

NATE MAY: There are a lot of people who this has put in a difficult bind. Some of them can't get out, some of them are elderly, some of them it's just too much of a financial burden.

NAYLOR: One of his first stops this morning, the second floor apartment of Nakeysha Bennett.


MAY: Nakeysha. I'm here to deliver some water. I'm with the Clean Water Hub. Your dad told me about you.

NAKEYSHA BENNETT: I'm sorry, I was feeding my baby.

MAY: No problem.

NAYLOR: Nakeysha's baby is 3-week-old Eli.

BENNETT: I actually was, like, in the middle of, like, eating dinner and drinking water, yeah. And I was pregnant, so I started freaking out.

NAYLOR: What did the doctors tell you?

BENNETT: They just told me to drink the bottled water and stuff.

NAYLOR: And so now with his formula, you mix it with bottled water?

BENNETT: Yeah, and that's kind of hard to do because we went through cases and cases and cases of water.

NAYLOR: Nakeysha says she has no idea how long she'll have to go on fixing Eli's formula and bathing him with bottled water. And she's pretty fed up.

BENNETT: I just feel like there are, like, a lot of people who, like, aren't doing their jobs or something. I mean, it's hard. I cannot live like this with the bottled water. It drives me crazy that I can't just use regular water out of my sink.

NAYLOR: Charleston is the state's population center, the center of its government. And there are lawyers and lobbyists and other people here who know how to make themselves heard.

Maya Nye, who is president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, says maybe this leak will have an impact in a way that previous accidents in more isolated places in West Virginia have not.

MAYA NYE: I do believe it's a tipping point. Three hundred thousand people, you hit them on sort of a basic human survival level and, I mean, this has been ongoing for a month now, you know, and I'm still not drinking the water, using it and a lot of people I know still aren't.

NAYLOR: West Virginia's members of Congress have called for laws to ensure testing of storage tanks like the one owned by Freedom Industries that leaked and for more oversight of West Virginia's many other chemical facilities.

But University of Charleston professor Brad Deel isn't optimistic that big changes are coming in the state's light-handed regulation of the coal and chemical industry.

BRAD DEEL: What I predict will happen is that people are going to make a lot of noise. There will be some minor, minor regulations passed. To the extent anything major is proposed, people will say, well, let's not be too hasty. Let's not make any rash changes. Industry will open its wallets and its lobbying organizations to the politicians and very little will happen.

NAYLOR: Meanwhile, in St. Albans, just outside Charleston's water system...

JOANNE KIRBY: We came here and did a little pizza picnic, and then now we're finishing with that.

NAYLOR: Sounds like a great adventure.

KIRBY: It has been. Can you guys say hello? These are my children (unintelligible), OK?




KIRBY: (Unintelligible)

NAYLOR: Joanne Kirby and her three lively kids are having a pizza picnic. Kirby lives in Charleston but, along with three other families, has rented a small apartment in St. Albans so they can bathe the kids and wash their clothes in clean water. The families use a Google calendar to keep track of whose turn it is to use the place. Kirby, a lawyer, says their family doesn't use the water in their home at all.

KIRBY: One day, my daughter was brushing her teeth and she turned on the faucet by mistake and west her toothbrush and then just dropped it and burst into tears. And, you know, that's not a great feeling as a parent. You're doing the best to keep a routine and keep calm, yet the kids pick up on the tension. They're aware.

NAYLOR: Aurelia Kirby is 6.

AURELIA KIRBY: And mommy said even if other kids are using the water, we do not use the water.

NAYLOR: Richard Katz is another lawyer whose family shares the unfurnished apartment.

RICHARD KATZ: It works out really well. It's worked out great so far. Unfortunately, I'm afraid we might have to have the place for another month at least.

NAYLOR: Katz and the other families know they are fortunate to have the means to escape Charleston's water. Katz says unless it's resolved soon, the water crisis may make some people escape the area for good.

KATZ: I can tell you from talking with other professionals here, other highly skilled workers that we're watching. And if there is no meaningful change, there will be a brain drain here.

NAYLOR: As these families leave their shared apartment, the last thing they do is turn on the faucet and fill some jugs to take home.


RATH: That's NPR's Brian Naylor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.