Water Crisis

It has been nearly 10 days since the last of the 300,000 customers of West Virginia American Water Co. were told they could once again use the water pumped from the company’s Elk River facility.

However, many customers still have valid questions about the long-term health effects of using that water.

Even today, many people still complain of a smell emitting from their taps no matter how how many times the lines are flushed. And because of this, many customers – including several Charleston-area restaurants – are still using bottled water and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The crisis began on Jan. 9 when at least 10,000 gallons of crude HCHM and PPH – chemicals used in the process of cleaning coal – had leaked into the Elk River and entered West Virginia American’s treatment facility, not far downstream. The facility treats water for about 300,000 customers in nine counties, including Kanawha.

It may end up being one of the worst environmental disasters to ever hit the state. It certainly already has been an economic disaster for many businesses who during that first weekend of the leak were forced to close their doors during a during a busy weekend and, then forced to purchase water to use later.

And now people are rightfully worried about the possible longterm health problems the leak could cause.

Unfortunately, this situation is being worsened by the number of claims being made by people weighing in on the crisis.

A Marshall University professor, who also works as an expert witness for a law firm suing over the leak, this week told lawmakers that a water sample taken from one Charleston restaurant contained traces of formaldehyde, a cancer-causing chemical, that is often found in water and in the air. This caused an immediate outcry and forced the state Department of Environmental Protection to issue a statement calling that claim “completely unfounded.” Tests conducted by the DEP had not revealed any traces of formaldehyde.

Also adding to the current level of confusion is that an environmental engineer and his team from the University of South Alabama said the state and the West Virginia American Water Co. are not telling residents how to properly flush their home water system.

Perhaps the claim about the flushing procedure may be true. There is much that is unknown. However, with so much uncertainty, all of these voices screaming for attention become nothing but shrill noise. They may not be crying “wolf,” but they are causing fear and uncertainty with residents, which is certainly not needed at this time.

What is needed now more than anything are voices of reason.

The first voice needs to be that of the West Virginia Legislature. Lawmakers need to pass the strictest measure possible to protect citizens and ensure something like this never happens again.

Another voice that needs to be heard is that of Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha Charleston Health Department. At a recent public meeting, Gupta, who previously worked at the health department in Wood County, said the only way to track long-term effects is for the federal government to step in and create a medical monitoring program.

People have every right to know what is in their water and how it may effect their health. In the future, there has to be not only laws to protect people, but also testing, and monitoring programs in place that people can trust.

What is not needed is what is currently taking place: groups and organizations coming to West Virginia and staking their own claims in the crisis for their own reasons.