The Times West Virginian

January 11, 2014

Residents refuse to let chemical spill defeat them

By Cody Neff
(Beckley) Register-Herald

BELLE — The Elk River chemical spill may have shut down their water supply and closed their restaurants, but residents agree won’t let it defeat them.

People from Charleston and its neighboring cities gathered at Riverside High School in Belle to fill everything from milk jugs to gas cans with drinkable water Friday morning.

“At this location we don’t have any limits on water,” Belle Fire Chief Chris 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.”

Those waiting in line said they weren’t mad, just uncomfortable.

“I’m not that frustrated about it,” Ryan Gardner of St. Albans said. “I’m a really big water drinker. I drink close to a gallon a day, if not more. I didn’t get the chance to take a shower, so that’s kind of bothering me. Other than that I’m trying to not make too big of a noise.

“I’m sure they’ll take care of everybody. It’s not like we’re the biggest area ever. We’ve got help coming from FEMA and the water company, so things are getting fixed. I should be more frustrated, but I think I just find it a little more funny than frustrating that no one from the chemical company has taken the time to give a statement until recently.”

Most people in line said the thing they missed most were showers.

“Just the routine, everyday tasks like showering, washing clothes, cleaning dishes and that type of thing can’t be done,” David Fontalbert of Charleston said. “It’s difficult when you can’t use the facilities at work, but everyone is doing what they can and that’s all you can do in this type of situation.

“The county and the municipalities around Kanawha have responded as well as possible. There will be much more to come out later I’m sure, but we have to place responsibility on the response of the company that polluted the river. I’m sure that’s a feeling shared by most of the residents around.”

Fontalbert said he thinks recent experiences helped prepare people for this sort of thing.

“Having gone through (Hurricane) Sandy and the derecho a couple of years ago, it’s not a shock or something that we haven’t seen before,” he said. “We could anticipate the shortages and the response from the citizens, like the panic, and that’s one of the things that’s most dangerous to everyone else. It’s just something we have to take in stride and help our neighbors.”

Not everyone felt the same.

“I think they should have told us before they got started with all of this,” Harlan Flowers of Campbell’s Creek said. “Here I took a shower at 2:30 yesterday and then they let the horse out of the bag later. “I think they just didn’t want to get in trouble. I know you can get sued, but you have to let people know. We pay their bills. You’d think they’d have sensors in the water that can detect something like this as soon as it happens.”

Another man in line said this event felt like adding insult to injury.

“Losing water on top of all of the cold weather we’ve had that froze lines has been a little rough,” Dallas Townsend of Campbell’s Creek said. “It is good that water is being brought in to us for us.

“With the long waits, I believe they could do better. If they had it sitting outside to where people could drive by, fill up their jugs, and then drive on, it would be much more convenient for the people and a lot faster. That’s what I’ve seen.”

One Charleston man said the water crisis put a real hurt on his business.

“The most frustrating thing about all this is basically not being able to sell the merchandise that you have here and not being able to get some more,” M&M Mart and Deli owner Fadi Maugaes said. “The timing of it is near the weekend and most companies don’t deliver on the weekend.

“I can call all of my vendors and nobody will show up to bring me my products. Running out of most supplies like milk, bread, water, is basically how this has worked.”

Maugaes said the health department showed up Thursday and shut down any place that was serving prepared food.

“They were making sure that we shut down after they heard about the spill,” he said. “They wanted everybody to close so we shut down the deli section so that we couldn’t make any sandwiches or soups. The fountain drinks, the coffee machines, all of the things that require ice or water had to be shut down.

“The only things we’re selling are pre-packaged items and groceries. I got a small delivery of 12 cases this morning and most of it is gone. It’s not going to last long. I got in 60 gallons of water and that didn’t last half an hour. People were coming and getting three and four gallons at a time.”

The external affairs manager for West Virginia American Water said the company doesn’t know when tap water can be used again. Right now the only safe thing to do is not use it.

“What we’re dealing with is not any type of bacteria that can be boiled off or disinfected off,” Laura Jordan said. “It’s an actual chemical that’s present in the water, even though it’s assumed to be very low levels.

“This is only something that can be removed through the flushing process. We remove it from the system and replace it with safe, treated water.”