Now Deemed 'Safe,' Water Supply Sickens Over a Hundred W. Virginia Residents

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Common Dreams

Now Deemed 'Safe,' Water Supply Sickens Over a Hundred W. Virginia Residents

Dozens of residents protest 'for profit' utility's rush to turn on taps

by
Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Over a hundred West Virginia residents were treated by the hospital over the weekend, days after the local utility finished flushing the water system and lifted the ban imposed after a toxic coal cleaner was spilled in the region's water supply.

"More than 400 people have been treated in 10 hospitals since Jan. 9," when the spill occured, Al Jazeera reports. "At least 100 of those entered hospitals within the past two days."

Further, nearly 1,600 additional residents have placed calls to poison control with complaints of symptoms including red, itchy skin, eye irritation, vomiting and diarrhea.

On Friday, West Virginia American Water completed the process of flushing the affected areas and announced that the water was once again safe to drink and use. Despite giving the 'all-clear,' the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday that, "out of an abundance of caution," pregnant women should continue to drink bottled water.

"You know we deserve fresh drinking water. We deserve clean water," West Virginia resident Stephanie Devaney told local news broadcaster WCHS/CNN.

Devaney was one of several dozen residents who gathered outside the state capitol in Charleston Saturday to demand answers and accountability regarding the contaminated water supply. "We will stand up for ourselves. We're not going to back down," she added.

"If they were a nonprofit or not-for profit, would they have turned the water back on this fast?" protester Josh Scott asked, referring to the private utility West Virginia American Water (WVAW) and Freedom Industries, the coal processing plant from which the toxic detergent 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (or MCHM) leaked.

"I want people to wake up and see they're not going to do anything for us," Scott added.

Facing mounting legal costs and damages, Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy Friday—a move that left many wondering who will be held accountable for the untold damage to both the public and environmental health since 7,500 gallons of MCHM spilled into the Elk River, a mile and a half upstream from the intake pipes for WVAW, which serves nine counties.

"This right here, I know you can't smell this on television, this is straight out of my tap this morning and it smells like licorice," Scott told WCHS/CNN reporters. "I won't put my kid in it. I won't put my wife in it. They say it's safe. It's not safe."

On Sunday the West Virginia Gazette-Mail reported that, despite assurances by WVAW and the office of West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin that the lingering odor "is not a health issue," federal officials had advised a more lengthy flush of the water system:

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry suggested that residents be told to run water from their homes until they no longer smelled the licorice-like odor of the chemical, according to the communications, obtained under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

The ATSDR said that there was no established "odor threshold" below which residents would not detect the chemical.

Reportedly, protesters have another rally planned for Tuesday evening.

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