Menus Subscribe Search

Go Outside


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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.

August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.

August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?

August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.

August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.

August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.

August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.

August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.

August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.

August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.

August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?

August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?

August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.

August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.

August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.

August 16 • 4:00 AM

Six Days in Ferguson: Voices From the Protests

A day-by-day chronology of what happened in Ferguson, drawn from the best reporting by journalists and witnesses on the ground.

August 15 • 4:00 PM

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way Around Local Customs

The “liberation wrapper,” which was designed to shield mouths from public view while eating, has helped a Japanese chain increase sales by over 200 percent.

August 15 • 2:00 PM

How Wall Street Tobacco Deals Left States With Billions in Toxic Debt

Politicians wanted upfront cash from a legal victory over Big Tobacco, and bankers happily obliged. The price? A handful of states promised to repay $64 billion on just $3 billion advanced.

August 15 • 12:00 PM

How the Sexes Evolved

The distinction between males and females is one of the oldest facts of biology—but how did it come to affect our social identity?

August 15 • 10:00 AM

Will Philadelphia Ever Be Home to a Middle Class?

Jake Blumgart has watched his friends decamp his adopted hometown for places with more opportunities and city services. Will anyone be left to build a better Philly?

Follow us

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

Do Ticking Clocks Make Women More Anxious to Have Children?

Yes, but apparently only women who grew up poor.

Facebook App Shoppers Do What Their Friends Do

People on Facebook are more influenced by their immediate community than by popular opinion.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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