Voices from West Virginia: Local family wonders when they’ll have safe water again

by Cassady Sharp

January 16, 2014

The following is an account from Jennifer C., a resident of Charleston, West Virginia. Why? That is the question we as a community have been asking the last several days. Why has our water been poisoned? Why has a chemical storage facility been allowed to store a virtually unknown chemical right above the river intake for the water company that provides water for 300,000 residents of nine counties? Why was the leak not properly reported in a timely manner? Why were there no laws in place to evaluate and better regulate such facilities? Political grandstanding will set in soon. Blame and finger pointing will further some careers and undermine others. The news cycle will spin over to a new scandal or controversy, whether it be in New Jersey or Washington, D.C. When the news crews leave, we will be left with the remainder of the mess- the down and dirty remnants of this contamination and the corruption that allowed it to happen. My sister is five months pregnant, and both she and my mother showered and drank the water before the spill was announced to the public. My mother and sister had seven hours of drinking, showering, and clothes washing between the time of the initial leak and the announcement being made to the general public via local news stations. Seven hours of exposure and contamination. Not only is this terrifying, it is totally unacceptable. Freedom Industries seeped a toxic chemical into the supply network for at least a day before residents discovered the leak when they complained of the smell. My entire immediate family has been affected by this water contamination. There is not one home in my extended family that has safe, clean water. We have traveled to friends in outlying counties to shower, wash clothes, and refill our water supplies. We have spent easily $300 on water and paper supplies because we cannot wash dishes. Fortunately, my family has the economic ability to purchase bottled water. Additionally, we have nurses in the family and internet access to research and discern all the data and information that has trickled out in the days following the spill. Unfortunately, not all West Virginians have these option. Instead the people of West Virginia have the wisdom and knowledge to work the land and be self-sufficient. With our past history of industrial development and then abandonment by large absentee landlords, we have grown accustomed to undertaking the hardships that come with industry. West Virginia is filled with some of the most intelligent people I have met. Going out in search of water, I have seen the best in people - as tends to happen in all emergencies around here. West Virginia has the kindest, most resilient people. No matter how resilient the people are, the effects of this water crisis are going to be farther reaching than we can guess right now. Charleston, WV has effectively shut down as restaurants and any stores that serve food items have had to close their doors by order of the health department. Employees have lost their meager wages due to no customers. No customers equals no tips. For people that live day to day this is a devastating situation, especially since they have no way to purchase water with no income from their workplace shutting down. While I feel bad for Red Lobster not having any customers, for locally owned eateries this is especially crushing. Local businesses and the companies and employees that depend on them have had no income for over five days. The economic impact of this situation will be felt for a long time and may change the landscape of independent business for years to come. I am concerned even more for the environmental impact this will have on the communities and families in the area. Those that have well and city water will be affected in the long run where seepage into the water table will begin. Once this chemical begins leeching into the wells of families living in rural areas, the health effects could linger years to come. These toxic chemicals aren't going to just disappear. Cincinnati is currently preparing to deal with this disaster as it moves down the Ohio river. Through it all the company responsible for the leak, Freedom Industries, has been irresponsible in communicating information to the public. The president of Freedom Industries, Gary Southern, gave a press conference on the spill where he at best came across as arrogant and well hydrated (repeatedly guzzling water from a bottle brought in from out of the area). Once again, absentee owners poison the people of West Virginia and those responsible for the environmental and socio-economic impact disappear behind a wall of money and network of attorneys. The new questions we need to ask as a community, state, and nation all begin with what. What regulations need changing? What are some of the protocol we can put into place to prevent this delayed response in the future? Most importantly, what are we going to do as a community and state about the industries and companies that are destroying our beautiful state? What are we, as citizens, going to do to protect ourselves from this level of pollution and destruction ever happening again?

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