Water Worries in West Virginia Continue After School is Forced to Close

| by Jared Keever

In West Virginia, “rapid response teams” were called to four Kanawha County schools Monday, reports the Charleston Gazette. One of those schools, Grandview Elementary, was forced to close and send students home early. The teams were dispatched to the schools because of complaints of a “sweet” or “licorice” smell in the water.

Residents in the area have grown weary of that smell. It is the odor associated with Crude MCHM, the chemical that leaked from Freedom Industries into the nearby Elk River last month. The chemical spill left 300,000 residents without usable water for days.

Although the odor was detected at four schools, only Grandview sent students home after some teachers there complained of headaches and dizziness. No students were reported as having any symptoms.

The recent episode at the area’s schools highlights concerns that many citizens still have about the water in their homes. Many are just not convinced that the water is safe. 

Resident Kellie Raines told Think Progress that she is only using her water to shower and she doesn’t even think she should be doing that.

“The scariest part is that we really just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Raines said. “All of us are using the water now and we’re okay now but in 30 years — I’m young, I don’t want to in 30 years realize that I have cancer because of this water.”

Little is known about the chemical’s effect on humans and very few studies have been conducted on animals. Residents, like Raines, don’t trust officials’ ability to detect the chemical in the water and Raines is troubled by some reports that the chemical can linger in pipes years after the spill.

Officials admit their capabilities to detect MCHM are limited and sometimes the human nose may be the best guide. That seemed to be the case at the area schools where parents had previously been assured the pipes were clean.

“Our analytical capabilities have limitations,” Marc Glass, of Downstream Strategies, told Think Progress. Downstream Strategies has been conducting tests on water in the area.

“Our noses can detect the presence of some component of the Crude MCHM or something that was spilled from Freedom … at a lower level than our chemistry can detect,” he said.

Government officials seem unsure of the water’s safety as well.  In a recent NPR news story, when asked by W.Va. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito if the water was safe, the state’s commissioner of public health, Dr. Letitia Tierney, responded in part, “That's, in a way, a difficult thing to say because everybody has a different definition of safe.”

With such murky answers, worries are likely to continue in West Virginia for some time.

Sources: Charleston Gazette, Think Progress, NPR