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In West Virginia, Fear About Safety Of Drinking Water Persists


This year, West Virginia also had its own problems with water. On January 9, a chemical spill polluted the water for about 300,000 people in the Charleston area. Not long after the spill, the federal and state government said the water was safe, but many people did not trust those assurances. One of those people was Nakeysha Bennett, who was pregnant when this spill happened. Her son Eli was born just a couple of weeks later.

NAKEYSHA BENNETT: 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.

RATH: That was February. Nakeysha Bennett says now, 10 months later, she and her son still do not drink the water.

BENNETT: I currently do not drink the water, still. I still buy bottles of water because I still do not trust it, as far as drinking goes.

RATH: We reached her on her cell phone. That's her son you hear in the background. Bennett is so concerned about the water, she won't even use it to wash her dishes.

BENNETT: And I have spent, like, countless dollars on paper plates, plastic cups, plasticware, just because I don't want to wash my dishes because I don't want to have to use that water.

RATH: And she says her water still sometimes smells like chemicals.

BENNETT: It smells like candy - licorice.

RATH: Like licorice, she says, a telltale sign of the chemical spilled in the water. But Bennett may be in the minority. Many people are drinking from their taps again.

RAHUL GUPTA: I think the confidence level has gradually gotten up, and we do have much more confidence in the water than we did several months ago, back in January.

RATH: That's Rahul Gupta. He's the executive director of the Kanawha Charleston Health Department. Gupta has been studying the health effects of the chemical spill. He says in the short term, about one in five households reported some health problems associated with the pollution.

GUPTA: The most common impact people suffered were rash or skin irritation, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, eye irritation and some symptoms like headache, respiratory symptoms.

RATH: He says they are still trying to figure out if there are any long-term health effects from the polluted water. They expect some results on that next summer. Meanwhile, the federal government has announced charges against Freedom Industries and six former officials from the chemical company related to the spill. And West Virginia's legislature also passed new regulations to protect the water supply. Ken Ward, Jr., is a reporter with the Charleston Gazette, and he spoke with NPR's Melissa Block.


KEN WARD, JR.: The biggest move that was made here as a result of the chemical leak at Freedom Industries was passage by the legislature of an incredibly strong bill to regulate aboveground storage tanks and to protect drinking water. The legislature here is generally considered friendly to the oil and gas and chemical industries, but this bill was something that those industries weren't very happy with. And the legislature passed it, and the governor signed it anyway.

RATH: But the control of the state legislature flipped from Democrats to Republicans in the November election, and Ward says there is talk now of rolling back some of that law. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.