Water still not safe after chem spill

For Bonnie Wireman, the white plastic bag covering her kitchen faucet is a reminder that she can’t drink the water.

DRY BRANCH, W.Va. — For Bonnie Wireman, the white plastic bag covering her kitchen faucet is a reminder that she can’t drink the water.

The 81-year-old woman placed it there after forgetting several times the tap water was tainted after a coal processing chemical leaked into the area’s water supply. Every time she turned on the water, she quickly stopped and cleaned her hands with peroxide — just to make sure she was safe.

The widow of a coal miner, Wireman was angered about the chemical spill that’s deprived 300,000 West Virginians of clean tap water for four days, but doesn’t blame the coal or chemical industries.

“I hope this doesn’t hurt coal,” said Wireman, who lives in an area known as Chemical Valley because of all the plants nearby. “Too many West Virginians depend on coal and chemicals. We need those jobs.”

And that’s the dilemma for many West Virginians: The industries provide thousands of good paying jobs but also pose risks for the communities surrounding them, such as the chemical spill or coal mine disasters. The current emergency began Thursday after a foaming agent used in coal processing escaped from a Freedom Industries plant in Charleston and seeped into the Elk River. Since then, residents have been ordered not to use tap water for anything but flushing toilets.

Gov. Earl Tomblin said Sunday water tests were encouraging, but he didn’t give a timetable for when people might be able to use water again.

“The numbers look good. They are very encouraging,” Tomblin said.

Schools, restaurants and other businesses were to be closed today, but the governor said all state offices would be open. Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, of the West Virginia National Guard, said testing near the water treatment facility has consistently been below one part per million for 24 hours, a key step officials needed before they can lift the ban. Some tests have shown the chemical was not present at all in water coming in and out of the plant.

West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said they will lift the water bans by zone, but he didn’t say how soon it would be.

West Virginia is a picturesque, mountainous state, with deep rivers and streams that cut through lush valleys. But along the twisting, rural roads there are signs of the state’s industrial past and present: Chemical plant storage tanks rise from the valley floor. Coal mines — with heavy equipment and steel structures used to extract and then transport the fuel — are part of the rural landscape. White plumes of smoke drifting from factories offer a stark contrast to the state’s natural beauty.

“You won’t find many people in these parts who are against these industries. But we have to do a better job of regulating them,” said Wireman’s son, Danny Scott, 59, a retired General Electric worker who has been helping take care of his mother. “The state has a lot to offer. We don’t want to destroy it.”

West Virginia is the second-largest coal producing state behind Wyoming, with 538 mines and 26,619 people. The state has about 150 chemical companies that employ 12,000 workers.

Over the years, there have been accidents in both industries that have killed workers and harmed the environment. In January 2010, a worker died at a DuPont plant after inhaling a lethal dose of phosgene, which was used as a chemical weapon during World War I and today is used as a building block in synthesis of pharmaceuticals and other organic compounds. An explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine killed 29 people in 2010.

Coal is critical to West Virginia’s economy. Strong coal prices and demand proved vital to the state budget during and after the national recession, from 2009 through 2011.

In November 2009, the state’s unemployment rate was 8.4 per cent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Four years later — November 2013 — the unemployment rate was down to 6.1 per cent, below the national rate of 7 per cent.

In Tomblin’s recent State-of-the-State speech, he touted the chemical industry, saying it was among those that grew substantially over the last year.

The spill that tainted the water supply involved a chemical used in coal processing. But it didn’t involve a coal mine — and that’s a point state officials are trying to convey to the public.

When asked if the emergency is one of the risks of being a state that relies heavily on the coal industry, Tomblin quickly responded: “This was not a coal company incident, this was a chemical company incident.”

The coal industry, too, was saying they should not bear the blame in this case.

“This is a chemical spill accident. It just so happens that the chemical has some applications to the coal industry, just that fact alone shouldn’t cause people to point fingers at the coal industry,” said Jason Bostic, vice-president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Bostic said the coal industry is very carefully regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection and several federal agencies that ensure it is safe from the very first step in opening a mine to ongoing operations.

“The environmental risk that’s associated with coal mining, we feel it’s well regulated,” Bostic said.

There’s no doubt the coal and chemical industries are a hugely important part of the state’s economy. Even as he lamented the loss of business caused by the spill, Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance, the state’s largest regional chamber of commerce, talked about the importance of chemical companies in the Kanawha Valley, which includes the capital.

“The chemical industry, that’s what started the valley,” Ballard said. “We’ve got a long history of a really good safety record, but with any business … there’s always a risk.”

Kent Sowards, the associate director for Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said that there’s a delicate balance between offsetting economic needs and potential costs associated with the coal and chemical industries.

“There are risks inherent with everything. Whether the risk is something that someone wants to continue to bear, that ultimately becomes their decision,” he said.

In West Virginia’s case, he believes the state is doing a good job of maintaining that balance.

And since the emergency is ongoing, it’s hard to assess at this point whether the response was successful, he said.

But in communities across the region, with names like Nitro and Dry Branch, people are beginning to wonder if it’s worth it.

Steve Brown, 56, lives outside of Nitro in the shadow of chemical plants. Over the years, he’s worked in some of those places, and knows firsthand about the risks and rewards.

“You made enough to support your family,” said Brown, who is unemployed. “But you also see what it’s done to the environment. People stay away from fishing in rivers and streams near chemical plants. You have fish advisories. You know better. You just know.”

The chemical spill has brought out the best and worst in people, he said. He watched folks deliver water to elderly and disabled neighbours who couldn’t get out of the house. But he also glimpsed people fight in grocery stores over bottles of water.

“When I saw that, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was really sad.”

Chris Laws, 42, a coal miner who grew up in the Kanawha Valley, has worked in the mines for 20 years. He said he’s worried what will happen in a few days when people still aren’t able to shower, wash clothes or clean dishes.

“This ain’t even the bad times. The bad times aren’t here yet,” he said as he waited outside the Kroger grocery store for water to be delivered.

He said it bothers him that officials have downplayed the impact on people.

“They make believe it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal. You have 300,000 people without water. If this goes on much longer, it’s going to cause mass chaos,” he said.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

NDP leader Rachel Notley is calling on the UCP to make a public inquiry into the COVID-19 outbreak at Olymel. (Facebook screenshot)
Notley calls for Olymel inquiry as plant reopens

Union also asks for further consideration to delay opening

Protesters
Rally held outside Red Deer court for slain central Alberta man

Tyler John Campbell charged with second-degree murder for December 2019 homicide

Hog slaughter operations resumed on Thursday at Red Deer’s Olymel plant, which was closed for two weeks to curb the spread of COVID-19 among workers. Three employee deaths resulted from the latest outbreak. (Advocate file photo).
Hog slaughtering operations gear up again at Red Deer’s Olymel plant

Workers begin to return after 14-day closure due to COVID-19 outbreak

Bryson, six, and Mara, eight, play with puppies from Dogs With Wings Saturday. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Dogs With Wings introduces Red Deer program

A program that trains puppies to be certified service, autism, facility and… Continue reading

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw says the greater lag time between first and second doses will allow more Albertans to be effectively vaccinated sooner. (File photo)
Alberta extends time between vaccine doses means more people to get shot sooner

National Advisory Committee on Immunization says doses can be to up to four months apart

FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2021, file photo, a vehicle rests on its side after a rollover accident involving golfer Tiger Woods in the Rancho Palos Verdes suburb of Los Angeles. Detectives are looking at data from the so-called “black box” of Tiger Woods’ SUV to get a clearer picture of what occurred during the Southern California rollover crash last week that seriously injured the golf star, authorities said Wednesday, March 3. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Detectives look at SUV’s ‘black box’ from Tiger Woods crash

California law allows law enforcement to seek search warrants for data recorders

FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2019 file photo, Alex Kurtzman, from left, Heather Kadin, Anson Mount, Sonequa Martin-Green and Ethan Peck participate in the “Star Trek: Discovery” show panel during the CBS All Access presentation at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour at The Langham Huntington in Pasadena, Calif. Paramount+ debuts Thursday, March 4, 2021 as the latest — and last — streaming option from a major media company, this time from ViacomCBS. The company hopes its smorgasbord of offerings — live sports and news, reboots of its properties like “Frasier” and “Rugrats,” original shows like “Star Trek: Discovery” and the ViacomCBS library will entice viewers(Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File)
Will Paramount+ be a mountain or a molehill in streaming?

Over the last year and a half more and more streaming services have debuted

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre can accommodate up to 20 patients requiring a ventilator, says Alberta Health Services.  File photo by Advocate staff
Opinion: UCP government reneging on Red Deer hospital funding

Another year, another Alberta budget and another blow to central Albertans. Budget… Continue reading

Seattle Storm guards Sue Bird, right, and Jordin Canada pose for photos Wednesday, March 3, 2021, on the roof of the Space Needle in Seattle after they raised a flag with the team's new logo on it. Bird re-signed with the Storm earlier in the week. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Sue Bird staying busy with 20th Seattle season on horizon

Sue Bird staying busy with 20th Seattle season on horizon

Lille players celebrate after Jonathan David scored his side's second goal during the French League One soccer match between Lille and Marseille at the Stade Pierre Mauroy stadium in Villeneuve-d'Ascq, France, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
David scores 2 as Lille wins to stay two points clear of PSG

David scores 2 as Lille wins to stay two points clear of PSG

Canada defender Shelina Zadorsky, right, passes the ball in front of Argentina forward Sole Jaimes (9) during the second half of a SheBelieves Cup women's soccer match, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Alphonso Davies and Shelina Zadorsky have been named Canada Soccer’s players of the month for February. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Phelan M. Ebenhack
Davies, Zadorsky named Canada Soccer’s players of the month for February

Davies, Zadorsky named Canada Soccer’s players of the month for February

Most Read