40 Days and 40 Nights Since Clean Water in WV: How to Help
Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
It has now been over 40 days since 300,000 people were left unsure about the safety of their water due to chemical spill in Charleston, WV. The spill has caused a lot of confusion, anger, and sent an estimated 400 people to the hospital – but it has also inspired some remarkable community organizing.
The WV Clean Water Hub is a community-organized effort that has been supported by volunteers as well as grassroots groups in West Virginia — including Aurora Lights, Coal River Mountain Watch, Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, RAMPS and more — to identify communities in need of clean water and supplies, and to connect affected communities with volunteers and donors.
This inspiring effort is an example of the ways neighbors step up to help their neighbors in Appalachia. It is also a stark reminder of the far-reaching impacts of this preventable disaster caused by industry negligence and lax regulations.
Here are some stories collected from The WV Clean Water Hub and activists working for clean water over the past weeks. The Hub is still making deliveries – learn how you can help below!
How to Help:
Donate to the Hub
Volunteer with the
WV Clean Water Hub
Easy Action A Day
Tell EPA to Protect Water
An Expanded Idea of Leadership
Jen Osha Buysse
The stories that get me the most are the stories of mothers with children who are sick and asking why the state is not considering it an emergency. Why is the government providing less emergency water every day, even though every day we’re learning new, disturbing issues with the water situation?
We’ve been gathering a lot of liquid baby formula and diaper wipes for the families with young children. We have an incredible group of people working together in unaffected areas to support those affected — local unions, daycares, schools. One local pediatrician donated baby supplies and landscape companies have offered their trucks.
I have spoken with many families who haven’t been able to work in the weeks since the chemical spill. They can’t just not buy water, but they can’t buy food or pay heating bills in the freezing weather. They don’t want to ask for help, but their income has been cut off.
Everyone can find a way to use whatever skills they have during this ongoing emergency. Someone has a truck, someone knows parents at a school they can organize – we’ve had to expand our idea of what leadership consists of, and I’ve witnessed all these incredible people working together to fill truck after truck.
This crisis is far from over and we must all work together to settle into a sustainable level of support that we can maintain as long as needed.
Jen Osha Buysse is an emergency relief organizer, co-founder and board chair of educational nonprofit Aurora Lights. She is a busy teacher and mother living in Morgantown, W.Va.
West Virginia Pride
Through this disaster I have been reassured that I am proud to be a West Virginian. The folks who make me proud to be a West Virginian are those who haven’t had work since the water crisis, but are still at their local fire departments and churches handing out supplies every day.
The folks who make me proud to be a West Virginian are angry about what has happened to their communities and demand something be done to fix it. The folks who make me proud to be a West Virginian live in unaffected areas, but have still worked every day to collect donations and supplies to send to the affected areas.
West Virginians stay strong no matter what happens. We bond together as tight-knit communities and we help each other through times of need.
Hannah Spencer is an emergency relief organizer and president of educational nonprofit Aurora Lights. She lives in Morgantown, W.Va.
A Financial Hardship:40 Minutes from Fresh Water
My community is partially in Putnam and partially in Cabell County. I have many elderly neighbors, and yes, there are also children and handicapped individuals that need access to clean water. Water distribution in this area was cut off on Jan. 18.
I own a small business that I run out of my home and have been unemployed during this water crisis. Needless to say, driving an hour each day to Charleston for water is causing financial hardship, and is just not feasible for myself and many others here. The closest bottled water distribution available is in Nitro, W.Va., 40 minutes away, and it ends soon.
It took a few weeks for use to really start getting the chemical heavy in our tap. The smell alone, with no physical contact, is burning our eyes, nose and mouth, and it’s causing headaches and even chest pains in myself, my husband and many of our neighbors. Our main water lines have not been flushed, so the multiple times that we have flushed our house is just pulling more chemical into our lines and tanks, filling our homes with that noxious smell.
S. Rhodes is an artist in Putnam County, W.Va.
Wary and Waiting
I didn’t have a problem with the spill at first; I thought, “Accidents happen.” But when it came time for us to flush, I had an asthma attack from the smell. I went outside for fresh air and tried to flush again later — and had another asthma attack. After our flush, our water still looked blue and still had the smell. So I waited for three days after the flush to shower, and got a skin rash from the water.
After that I called the water company. The man at West Virginia American Water told me the strong smell meant the water was safe to use. I told him about my blisters, and he said it was probably my shampoo, though I’ve used the same shampoo for years. I asked him about the water discoloration, and he said I must have spilled something in it. He made me feel like an idiot. He told me to keep flushing my lines and that someone would be out to test my water. Four days have passed, and we haven’t heard anything.
We’ve spent hundreds of dollars on new filters for the fridge and the home, bottled water, and gas to drive to get water and supplies. We’re spending money we don’t have. The money we’ve spent on water was supposed to pay my electric bill.
Being a three-time cancer survivor makes me wary about the long-term effects of this. I don’t think the customers should be the one to pick up the bill for this disaster.
Karen S. is a concerned citizen living in Boone County, W.Va.
One Seriously Angry Granny
Sometime last year, my good friend Kim and I had a conversation about the joys of a hot shower. The perfect temperature, with lovely handmade soap and standing there as long as we liked. She said, “I don’t think we’re always going to have that.”
Kim’s prophetic words came to pass Jan. 9, 2014, when Freedom Industries spilled a reported 6, 251 gallons of MCHM and PPH into the Elk River. My reaction upon hearing the news that Thursday went from zero to fury in the first five minutes. How could this have been allowed to happen? What were these chemicals and what would they do to us?
By Saturday, my anger had not abated and I knew I had to do something, so I sat quietly for awhile, breathing and asking myself what this feeling was about. And the answer rose up clearly before me. The Elk was MY river. My parents brought me home from the hospital to a one-bedroom trailer that was directly across the narrow expanse of the river from the site of the spill. I spent my first ten years in that trailer park, and the river was a constant in my life and a source of magic and wonder. How dare those b——- assault her this way? The wave of grief didn’t hit until Sunday morning as I lay in bed after awakening. It was a powerful, cleansing outpouring and I felt somewhat better afterward.
Emotions aside, there remained the practical matters of life without water to be dealt with. Water distribution sites were set up in our town and we didn’t have a problem with getting it; however as I write this, distribution centers have been shut down. I am out of step with the new rhythm of life — having to heat water for washing dishes and sponge baths, leaving the house loaded down like a mule to do laundry and shower at a friend’s house.
We did the prescribed flushing procedure and it has not worked, in fact it made us feel sick. The water still reeks of what I call genetically modified blueberries. I wake with a daily headache and my nose is bloody most all the time. The thing that scares me most is that I am certain that this was in the water long before residents discovered the spill. I tasted and smelled it around the second week of December, but I just thought the filter on my water pitcher needed to be changed.
How fortunate we are that MCHM has an odor! Otherwise we might never have known this chemical was poisoning our water.
Linda Sodaro is one seriously pissed off granny living in South Charleston, W.Va.
Life is Surreal Since the Chemical Spill
By Linda Frame
“That’s a First World Problem, Mom,” my teenage son told me one day. I can’t remember now what trivial thing I was complaining about. Because that was before the chemical spill.
On Thursday evening, Jan. 9, I was where I am a lot of the time, at the grocery store. I noticed people buying large amounts of water and thought to myself, “I hope they recycle all that plastic.” Easy for me to say. I have curbside recycling and access to clean drinking water. Then I got in my car and learned about the Do Not Use Order from West Virginia American Water Company because of the chemical that had been allowed to leak into the Elk River, maybe for hours, maybe for days. No one will say. Still.
Life has been surreal since then. CNN trucks in the work parking lot. A strange licorice smell in our water. Being told we can drink it, oh wait! Don’t drink it if you’re pregnant. The river’s clean. Oh wait! We found a second chemical. School will be open tomorrow. Oh wait! It’s closed for the next 5 days.
It’s been hard to get away from social media where we have all been sharing our experiences. “Has your zone been cleared for flushing?” “Are you showering with it?” Even in the parking lot at Kroger a woman was talking about parts-per-million with the guy who helped her out with her groceries. A coworker and I decided it’s like being in a weird sci-fi flick but no one gave us the script.
The day after our water was deemed safe, I decided first to wash my hands in it. I wanted to take a shower. It had been five days of either not showering or heading out-of-county to the YMCA to use safe water. I turned on the bath faucet. Let the water run. Smelled it. Sat on the bathroom floor and looked at the water. It looked normal. Turned the faucet off. Turned it back on. Smelled it some more. The licorice smell faded and I took the plunge. Again, no one had given us the script.
I survived. But every time I shower or get close to the water I wonder what long-term damage it is causing my family. My pets are drinking bottled water. Surreal.
There is desperation to return to Life Before the Spill. Only now have I realized that there is no such thing. There is no going back. There is no trust. We have been violated and lied to.
That’s the silver lining of this catastrophe – it didn’t just go after the poor people. It is affecting those of us who are used to only First World Problems. And now some of those folks, those who might have thought caring about the environment was a hobby or a CHOICE or even something to hide, see things differently now. They are mad at Freedom Industries and the bumbling response of the governor and his Department of Environmental Protection.
Let’s hope they stay that way. If anything is going to change, we need them.
Linda Frame lives in Charleston, W.Va, with her husband and two teenage sons. She is the communications manager for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.