Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Go Outside

elk-river-national-guard

Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Deweese loads water into a vehicle at the Winfield, West Virginia, courthouse. (Photo: The National Guard/Flickr)

Trial by Water: West Virginia’s Elk River

• January 15, 2014 • 2:00 PM

Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Deweese loads water into a vehicle at the Winfield, West Virginia, courthouse. (Photo: The National Guard/Flickr)

The recent contamination illuminates just how tenuous and vital the safety of our water is.

As a child, I drank freely from the tap and from the hose, knowing that the cold, clear water in both rose 28 feet from the well that my father dug himself. I fished and crabbed four rivers and the largest estuary in the country, waded barefoot through countless creeks, and every so often went with friends or family to swim in the dark, deep water of the ocean. Water always seemed holy, not only in the baptismal font, but along the shorelines and on the open bay, in the drinking glass and dripping from the showerhead.

I know exactly where my water comes from on the Eastern Shore of Maryland: the shallow well near the clothesline draws water from an aquifer on the Coastal Plain, where groundwater gathers after it flows through gravel, sand, and silt. It’s rare when I am traveling or visiting somewhere else that I have any idea about the source of the water flowing from the faucet. I suspect very few know the source of their drinking water when it comes from the tap, only the occasional moment when boredom leads them to read the label on plastic bottles.

This tragedy may be unfolding in a state uniquely related to the coal and chemical industries, but no state is without industry and no water source is safe from contamination.

But last week, 300,000 residents of West Virginia, about 16 percent of the state, learned the exact source of their water. When an odor of black licorice overtook Charleston on Thursday morning, authorities discovered that 7,000 pounds of a hazardous chemical had leaked into the Elk River. Residents of nine counties—their names like a hall of American heroes: Boone, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln—learned the exact source of their water when the governor informed them not to drink, cook with, or bathe with the water that came from the Elk River.

Like some tragic fable, American Water informed their customers that Freedom Industries, a self-described “full-service producer of specialty chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries,” had contaminated the water with a chemical that washes coal before it goes to market.

Four-methylcyclohexane methanol is a chemical about which little is known: acute health affects include dizziness, diarrhea, headaches, skin rashes, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; carcinogenic, mutagenic, and tetragenic effects are unknown.

Freedom Industries is a company about which little is known: it was founded in 1986 by two partners, one of whom filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and served jail time for tax evasion; it nearly had to relocate in 2009, when sand and silt clogged the Elk River and obstructed their barge traffic, but then a $400,000 stimulus package funded a dredging project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. With the channel dredged, Freedom Industries could continue transporting chemicals for the mining industry. It even got a contract from Georgia Pacific to distribute reagents.

Freedom Industries stored its chemicals in above-ground, 48,000-gallon tanks, one of which developed an inch-wide hole last week, through which four-methylcyclohexane methanol spilled, seeping through a cinder-block retaining wall into the Elk River.

It would be easy to ignore the Elk River Disaster, or worse, to dismiss it as a regional crisis. This tragedy may be unfolding in a state uniquely related to the coal and chemical industries, but no state is without industry and no water source is safe from contamination.

AMERICANS, WHETHER THEY LIVE in cities, suburbs, towns, or on the open prairie use between 80 and 100 gallons of water every single day: a gallon to brush our teeth, two gallons per minute in the shower, three gallons each time we flush the toilet, a gallon every time we wash our hands, almost 10 gallons per load or strainer of dishes, 25 gallons per load of laundry, at least five gallons per minute if we water our lawns or gardens, not to mention what we drink.

Water is not a luxury, but a necessity, and not for some, but for all. A decade ago it seemed like the greatest threat to our water supply was global warming, elevating sea levels to threaten fresh water supplies with salt and increasing the number and duration of droughts, but now it seems like before the aquifers and wells run dry, they’ll be poisoned.

Elk River and its surrounding towns and cities join Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Crestwood, Illinois, and Hinkley, California, in the atlas of American water disasters. If we want to stop adding pages to that atlas, then we need to get serious about protecting our water supply from chemicals and toxins.

On the very day that Freedom Industries leaked thousands of gallons of chemicals into the Elk River, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2279, the benignly titled Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act of 2013. While packaged as a bill to promote more cooperation between state and federal agencies during environmental clean-ups, the bill actually gutted the Solid Waste Disposal Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

Just hours after the Elk River Disaster was discovered, all three of West Virginia’s representatives voted in favor of the bill, which hamstrings the EPA by removing a requirement that the solid waste disposal regulations be reviewed every three years, prohibiting the preemption of state regulations by federal regulators, and requiring the federal government to confer with states before imposing the clean-up requirements and fines of Superfund.

Bills like the one passed last week by the House not only make environmental disasters more likely, they make it harder to hold companies and corporations responsible when they do. Polluters, not the public, should pay the costs of clean-up. We need more regulation, not less, if we are to prevent another disaster like Elk River.

Water has always been holy, not only for believers, but for everyone. It sustains life of every kind. Water is holy on the flesh and on the tongue, holy between muddy shores and sandy beaches, holy in the sharp cold of a kitchen faucet or garden hose, even holy in the clear plastic of a bottle. Its holiness is not our doing, though we are responsible for its continual desecration. Thousands in West Virginia are still living without water in their homes and restaurants, offices and schools. Their thirst should inspire us all, not only to know the source of our water, but to preserve and protect it with the courage and diligence of saints.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

More From Casey N. Cep

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.