The Times West Virginian

January 15, 2014

Water crisis brings strong response from many levels in West Virginia


Times West Virginian

— It will likely be months before satisfactory answers are found about the water crisis that struck the Charleston area last Thursday.

It started when a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a Freedom Industries plant into the nearby Elk River. West Virginia American Water then began receiving complaints about an odor coming from water being sent to consumers, and officials discovered the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol was leaking out of a 40,000-gallon tank.

It was a major water disruption as “do not use” warnings went out. The leak was just upstream from the water intake that services about 100,000 West Virginia American Water customers — an estimated 300,000 people. Water customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties were affected.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin on Friday said that the “release of a potentially dangerous chemical into our water supply has put hundreds of thousands of West Virginians at risk, severely disrupted our region’s economy and upended people’s daily lives. My office and other federal law-enforcement authorities have opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release. We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence we uncover.”

The upcoming investigations, of course, are important.

Now, though, it’s time to salute the response to a crisis that appears to be slowly easing.

“More West Virginians have seen the do not use order lifted for their area and have been asked to begin the flushing process,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Tuesday. “More than one-third of the affected customers have had safe water restored. West Virginia American Water Co. reports that samples taken at its treatment plant intake now show no presence of the chemical.”

There is still plenty to be done. Flushing is being done by zones to prevent the water system from being overwhelmed, and state officials are eager to get students back to school after absences caused by last week’s sub-zero temperatures followed by the water crisis.

“Getting our students back into safe and healthy classrooms is one of my top priorities,” Tomblin said. “Reopening will be determined on a county-to-county basis and will require that specific protocols be met. The Department of Education is working with the local county emergency and health agencies, along with the National Guard, to ensure our schools are properly flushed and cleaned before students return to the classroom. Parents concerned about sending their child to school may contact their school principal.

 “I’d also like to express my appreciation to the residents of the affected areas for their patience and understanding. I know this has been a difficult time for both residential and business communities. I ask you to continue to be patient — our team must have adequate time to ensure the safe and stable return of water service to affected areas.”

Finally, let’s not forget the Good Samaritans who joined government officials in providing water during the emergency — individuals, businesses and other organizations.

Comments last weekend by Belle Fire Chief Chris Fletcher while giving out water summed up the cooperative attitude that’s so helpful in a time of crisis.

“At this location we don’t have any limits on water,” Fletcher said. “Everything has been flowing pretty good, so we haven’t seen a need to set any limits. Everyone has been really cooperative.

“I would guess that we’ve seen well over 500 to 1,000 people. We have been here since 8:30 this morning, and until this truck runs out of water or they bring another, or someone wants to leave and go eat, we’re here. Everyone here is basically volunteering their time here.”

A strong response from many levels — a West Virginia tradition — is helping to ease the extreme difficulty faced by hundreds of thousands of our state neighbors.