safety

Your Questions Answered: Flushing Recommendations, Water and Water Systems Safety, and Health Concerns

Dr. Whelton standing in a basement beside a hot water heater.

January 25, 2014

Dear Residents Affected by the Water Crisis,

My research team has received over 20 e-mail messages and telephone calls from you in the last week regarding the West Virginia Water Crisis. At the end of this post, you can read some of those messages, which demonstrate the great need, gratitude, and sadly, fear that many of you are experiencing. Because the number of these messages exceeds our ability to respond quickly, we have compiled a list of the 10 most commonly asked questions below. Please contact us if you have other questions not answered below. Ms. Krista Bryson, a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University also contributed to this information. Ms. Bryson worked with us to put together a “how to flush your plumbing system” video and the below information.

This flood of questions from residents brings to light the importance of having credible, trustworthy, and transparent scientists and engineers involved in a disaster response of this magnitude. Please feel free to ask any other questions and check back at our website for updates on our drinking water testing results conducted on water found inside the homes of those in affected areas. We recognize there is still a great need for answers in West Virginia and will do everything in our power to come back to West Virginia in about one month to conduct further testing.

Sincerely,
Andy Whelton, Ph.D.
University of South Alabama

[For maximum distribution, this information is also posted on The Whelton Group website]

The 10 Most Commonly Asked Questions from Residents Affected

by the West Virginia Drinking Water Crisis Answered

1. Should I flush my plumbing system if I have not yet done so? I have heard there are individuals advising residents not to flush their plumbing systems at all.

My advice, as an environmental engineer with experience designing and troubleshooting water systems and plumbing materials, is to flush your plumbing system immediately. However, do not use the exact flushing guidance endorsed by the West Virginia Bureau of Health. Instead, use the modified guidance we issued in response to chemical exposure reports of those who followed the West Virginia Bureau of Health guidance.

Flushing is critical to your plumbing system because the longer you allow the contaminated water to sit stagnant, the more problems your building may experience. Chemicals may break down and transform into more or less toxic compounds, pipes could be damaged by water contact, and plumbing materials could be permeated by those chemicals and other compounds. Disease causing organisms can also begin to grow and take up residence in your pipes. There are many more potential consequences. Unfortunately, there is little information available to describe the consequences of allowing your plumbing system to sit idle with the specific contaminated drinking water that affected your community.

2. How should I flush my plumbing system?

Step 1. Shut-off your hot water heater. Let that water cool down. Chemicals will evaporate faster into your building from hot water than from cold water.

Step 2. Open all exterior windows and doors to ventilate your building, BEFORE you start flushing. Find your floor fans and position them so that any air near the faucets, bathrooms, etc. can be pushed outside. If you have limited fans, try to flush one faucet at a time. You want to get the chemical odor out of your house when you flush. If one of your drains is clogged or drains slowly, do not stand inside that room while flushing. Check back frequently so that you do not let the water overflow.

Step 3. Flush your hot water faucets using the West Virginia Bureau of Health endorsed guidance. Remember, you should have shut off your hot water heater.

Step 4. Flush your cold water faucets using the West Virginia Bureau of Health endorsed guidance.

You will note that Steps 3 and 4 are similar to the guidelines endorsed by the West Virginia Bureau of Health. Steps 1 and 2 were not and have not been mentioned by the Bureau of Health to date. However, Steps 1 and 2 are important to limit chemicals from accumulating in your house during flushing.

You may have rooms that do not have working overhead fans, doors, or windows. For those rooms you want to make certain when the faucets are flushed that you have set up floor or nearby window fans to remove the contaminated air. Flush the water and flush-out that air.

If you live in a building that does not allow you access to your hot water heater, contact the building owner. They would be responsible for the hot water heater and could tell you when they last flushed it. If you still have questions contact a representative of the West Virginia Bureau of Health.

3. If my neighbors don’t flush at all or only flush once, will the contaminated water ever get out of the water supply?

This question is complex. Flushing once is the West Virginia Bureau of Health’s recommendation. At some point, flushing should remove the chemicals that remain inside the water supply system. However, in 1980, a drinking water contamination incident required 9 months of flushing to remove the chemical from water pipes buried below the ground. It is possible that the chemicals inside Charleston West Virginia’s drinking water system will require 9 months to flush out. The key is for researchers to determine where the chemical remains, if it degraded, how it interacted with the plumbing systems, and how much remains at drinking water taps inside houses. We are not aware of any data that predicts exactly how long it will take to remove the chemicals from the affected drinking water system.

4. How many residents haven’t flushed their plumbing systems?

Today, I’m not certain. On Monday, January 20 the West Virginia Governor’s office did not know either. Of the people we interviewed in the affected area (January 17-22), 7 out of 10 had not flushed their plumbing system. Other residents told us they “partially” flushed and hoped to get around to finishing their flush soon. All people we spoke with lived in all different areas of Charleston and had varying income levels. Today, I found out that one resident has not flushed his plumbing system at all, leaving the contaminated water stagnant in their plumbing for 17 days.

To determine how many buildings still contain contaminated water inside their plumbing systems, West Virginia officials could mobilize the National Guard or staff from another government agency to go door-to-door and determine who has and has not flushed their plumbing system. Our interviews and the emails we continue to receive indicate that there are still individuals who have not flushed, and have no intention of flushing. Because the public health and plumbing system integrity consequences of not flushing are simply unknown, this is a concern for everyone.

5. Who is responsible for making sure everyone has flushed their systems? What should they be doing to ensure our safety?

It is the responsibility of the West Virginia Bureau of Health to ensure that the plumbing systems and the water inside resident’s homes are safe. We know this because when you make building plumbing system modifications, you must obtain a permit from them and their inspectors check to make certain everything is up to code.

So far, there has been little to no drinking water testing inside homeowner residences by the West Virginia Bureau of Health. Most of the drinking water testing has been carried out at fire hydrants (that convey cold water and empty into well-ventilated areas, much different from the flushing procedures they recommended for residents) and government buildings. Understanding chemical levels in fire hydrants is certainly important because that water would eventually make its way into resident homes. But, simply testing fire hydrants assumes that drinking water quality in plumbing systems and hydrants is the same. That assumption has not been proven.

No one from the West Virginia Bureau of Health is monitoring chemical levels inside the resident’s homes from what we gathered from our interviews, continued discussions with government officials, and nonprofits who are still distributing bottled water.

My personal discussions with a few federal officials tangentially involved in the handling of the water crisis revealed that the interaction between the chemicals and the plumbing system had not been considered as of Wednesday, January 22. Because I told a few colleagues in the federal government to consider the plumbing system – chemical interaction issue and they agreed, it is now at least being discussed. If officials involved in this response do not have the expertise needed, they should engage folks like us who do.

Finally, there has been no timetable issued for how long is needed to remove the chemicals from the drinking water supply or how much flushing water per month is needed. From what I understand, that is because officials have not seriously investigated the issue of plumbing system contamination. I would have expected that by now this type of testing would be underway.

In response to resident questions about flushing, our research team has begun unfunded experiments in our laboratory to address these issues.

6. Would a new home filtration unit remove this chemical?

If the building plumbing system is contaminated, the installation of a home filtration system may not have much value in removing the 4-MCHM chemical or other chemicals within water before it entered the building. Parts or all of the existing plumbing system could require decontamination or replacement if chemical binding or permeation with the plumbing system materials is significant. Decontamination actions could simply include clean tap water flushing or could potentially be more complex. There is simply not enough public information available.

If the building plumbing system turned out not to be contaminated, but the incoming tap water was contaminated, some treatment devices, but not all, would be effective at removing the chemicals. These devices however would include long-term operation and maintenance costs. As a consumer, be aware that there are equipment vendors approaching the government and homeowners, selling water treatment devices in the wake of this event. It is your responsibility and in your best interest as a consumer to protect yourself by investigating any claims made by these vendors about their equipment’s ability to safeguard your water.

7. Despite the drinking water being declared safe to drink except for pregnant women and children under 3 years old, is it safe to cook with, drink, or bathe with?

I am not certain how to answer because critical drinking water quality data has not been published and there are many variables involved when it comes to the different ways people expose themselves and the ways different people react to the same chemicals. If officials do not have the scientific data to justify the “safe” declaration under the aforementioned conditions then they need to come out and declare this. Affected residents want to make the best decisions to protect their family. They want data and transparency.

8. Is it safe to do laundry or bathe with water from the affected areas? What if the person is pregnant?

To my knowledge, no data exists that describes whether or not the chemicals within the contaminated water bind to clothing or if those chemicals could then be released onto skin when clothes are worn.

The bathing issue raises several possible exposure routes including inhaling vapors, absorbing chemicals through the skin, and ingestion (accidental, as may happen with children in the bath). To my knowledge, no testing has been conducted inside affected homes.

For pregnant women and children under 3 years old, I recommend those persons follow the advice of the Centers for Disease (CDC) control for their contact with the water.

9. If children or adults are exposed to the water could they get cancer?

I defer to the public health community to provide advice here. Disease is a complex issue, and you should contact qualified medical professionals about these types of questions. The West Virginia Bureau of Health consists of credentialed medical professionals. As an Environmental Engineer I can describe chemical fate, breakdown, reactions with other compounds in the water, plumbing system materials, and air exposure levels, among other topics. I am not qualified to advise you on whether exposure to this chemical may cause cancer.

Clearly, it is difficult to find an answer to this question from anyone because government officials definition of “safe” and the medical community’s response to visits prompted by exposure to the contaminated water are not as transparent as they should be. This is partially because there is little known information on the health effects of exposure to this chemical, and simply the other chemicals that may be in the drinking water.

10. Will chemical levels in my home plumbing with plastic differ from my neighbors who have copper pipes?

We simply do not know because there is no data to answer this question. Officials have neglected to test drinking water within private homes wherein the residents would most likely be exposed to chemicals during water use. Instead, officials have mainly relied on fire hydrants and government buildings, not typically where residents take baths/showers, cook dinner, and brush their teeth, etc.

In my opinion, residents who live in buildings that have metal drinking water pipes will have very different experiences than residents who live in buildings that contain plastic drinking water pipes. During our visit (January 17-22) we inspected many indoor plumbing systems. Some were fully copper, cPVC plastic, PEX plastic, while others were a mixture of copper, iron, cPVC plastic, PEX plastic, and PB plastic materials. Based on our ongoing testing, we believe that plastics in the Charleston area have the potential to be permeated by some of the chemicals reported. The rate of permeation in Charleston residences however may be minimal for some plastics and greater for others. Metal plumbing systems typically become corroded and chemicals could interact with those surfaces. Lack of data pertaining to the contaminated water makes drawing any definitive conclusions difficult. If you are unsure about what type of pipes you have in your home, you can consult the paper one of our graduate students wrote regarding plastic pipes in houses across the US, here.

In response to the lack of information about plumbing systems, our research team has begun additional unfunded experiments in our laboratory to address these issues.

MEDICAL DISCLAIMER
For medical advice, please contact your family physician or another credentialed medical professional. I am a civil/environmental engineer who understands chemical fate, degradation, transport, water treatment, plumbing systems, and exposure routes. Medical professionals can best address questions regarding the consequences of chemical exposure and health. It is my impression the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health should operate in this capacity. However, I am not aware of any effort by that organization or State government to go door-to-door like our team did last week to address concerns raised by the affected residents.

SELECT MESSAGES FROM RESIDENTS

January 24, 2014: Hello, my name is [XXXXX], I am involved in the water contamination in WV. I have not been using the water and am very concerned about bathing my children in the water. I am pregnant and want to make safe choices for my family, I am just not sure what is safe. In your professional opinion, would it be safe to do laundry and bathe in the water? we don’t intend to cook with it nor drink it. Thank you so much

January 24, 2014: Hello! I just saw your video about the water crisis in WV. It was on a friend’s facebook page. I live in Charleston, WV with my husband and 2 children. I was born and raised here and am so thankful for your work! Are you still here? We are, now, hearing that another chemical was leaked along with the original one. We are also being told that the ppm thought to be safe is not actually safe. I flushed when we were told, but am still not using the water for drinking, cooking, or bathing. I feel there should be access to free bottled water until the chemicals are 0 ppm. It is so confusing and frightening. Will my children get cancer one day from all this? We still just don’t know who to trust and what to do!! Your video made me feel that you really care and that you actually might be able to give us accurate information.

January 24, 2014: Dr. Whelton, I appreciate your presence here and would love to meet with you if you have time to see if there is any way I can assist you. My interest is personal, not professional as I do not have (nor do I anticipate having) any clients involved …..

January 24, 2014: Good Morning Dr. Whelton, I have seen your video posted on youtube regarding the recent water crisis here in WV. In my opinion this is a tragic event that has the good people of WV paralyzed as we try to make the right decisions for our health and the health of our loved ones. I, personally have flushed my home twice, once by running the faucets as instructed by WVAW company…then as I thought more and more I decided to drain our hot water tank and flush out all of our pipes again. We still smell the licorice odor in our water. It may be a little better but, not much. I have talked to my neighbors some of which have not flushed at all and some who say they only flushed once and will not do any more. My question to you is if this continues and not everyone is flushing and/or continues to flush will this ever get out of our water supply? I would also like to ask your opinion on a entire home filtration system? (sand filter and such)..this will cost me quite a bit of money however, I DO NOT feel our water supply is safe for cooking or drinking as well as bathing my children in it. If you have the time to answer my questions I would be eternally grateful. Also, if I get a filtration for the entire home will it catch this type of chemical? [XXXXX] contact me about this situation.

January 23, 2014: Good evening Dr. Whelton, Thank you for the efforts you and your team of volunteers are devoting to effects of the chemical spill here in Charleston. Neither the water company not the government are offering any information about how the contaminant chemicals react with the plumbing and other materials with which they came in contact. When we flushed our plumbing a week ago a faintly greenish blue crystalline substance came out of our tub faucet.We immediately called the water company and reported the substance. We were told the water company would send someone out in 1 to 4 hours to take a sample. No one showed.

Four days later we got a phone call from a water company representative who identified himself as a chemist. He could not tell, nor would he speculate, what the crystalline substance might be. He could not tell us whether it was toxic or an irritant. At one point he speculated that the chemical could have reacted with the copper in our plumbing, but he would not offer any ideas as to what chemical reactions could have occurred. When I told him we had a right to know what potential hazards are presented by reactions between the contaminants and materials in our house he suggested that we have testing performed at our own expense.

Setting aside the insensitive and cavalier nature of his suggestion I would be glad to send you a sample of the crystalline substance for analysis. Can you and your team give us any idea as to what possible chemical reaction products, if any, may have resulted from the contamination?

Any information you can provide would be most welcome. We can’t get answers from the water company or the government entities involved in the aftermath of the spill. Given the lack of answers to our questions we are not drinking or cooking with the tap water, and are limiting our contact with it in bathing. Please help us understand what potential harmful exposure, if any, we may be facing as a result of chemical retains between the contaminants and our plumbing.

If there is anything we can do to assist you in your efforts please let us know. Very truly yours,

January 23, 2014: My name is [XXXXXX] and I live in Culloden, WV, the only area impacted in Cabell County by the chemical contamination of the Elk River. I have been in contact with [XXXXXXX] who advised us not to flush our system yet. I was listening to your interview today which was posted by one of my friends and you advise definitely to flush. We are sending samples to [XXXXXXX], of preflush, midflush and postflush samples. We were just waiting to gather all the new information about the PPH chemical that has now been made known to have leaked.

One of my concerns is the fact that during a normal flushing of fire hydrants, the water company advises us to flush the cold water until it runs clear and not use the hot water until the cold is clean. In this new instance, we are told to flush the hot water first by running the hot water for 15 mins. I have written and called WVAMW to find out what the difference is, but to date no one has contacted me and it has been over a week. Could you please advise which is the proper way to do this. My grandchildren come here every day after school (5 and 7 yrs of age) and I have a 15 month old grandson who also comes here, as well as my son and daughter-in-law who is pregnant. They also live in Culloden. My husband has had multiple operations for cancer and has to have another exploratory one, so we are indeed concerned.

If you could contact me with the information, it would be greatly appreciated.[XXXXXXX] If you would like to come to our home prior to our flushing and would like to take samples, that would be great. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and for coming to West Virginia to do research and help us during this crisis.

January 22, 2014: Andrew, good work in West Virginia. Good article! Elk River was a massive spill vs Camp LeJeune was a drip , drip , drip for 30+ years. As a Camp LeJeune Marine to you,… any advocacy and publicity about Camp LeJeune would be appreciated. I’ve written to many officials, elected, DOD VA ect.. with little effect. They have left the Marines on their own to die. Speak for us when you can. They will listen to you. [XXXXX]

January 21, 2014: Hello, fist things first. Thank you for coming to West Virginia. I would like to know your thoughts on my situation. I helped a neighbor flush his home as soon as the flush order was given. I found the opposite in my interactions with people. The people I spoke with seemed more hopeful that the flush would bring everything back to normal. I on the other hand think until all tanks and soil are removed from spill site it is not “normal”.

Upon flushing a home that had just been given the notice to flush I noticed the persistent sweet smell of the chemical. I took the opportunity to flush the hot water tanks in the home at this time as well. Ran the water for some time in all sinks and outside spigot. The whole time smelling the tainted water.

I waited a couple of days and flushed my home the same as the previous home. I did however notice along with the buildup in the hot water tank a blueish tinted substance. This came out of both hot water tanks. It is now 1/21/2014 and when I turn my water on I still smell the chemical in my water. I am not using the water for anything but flushing toilets.

Since our government SUCKS SO BAD I have never even been able to find a water tanker for bulk fresh water in the City of Charleston. This despite calling city, county and Nation Guard. Our government is the number one cause of this problem. They are the ONLY ones with the authority to have entered this facility and demand tank inspections and inquire about chemicals stored at the site. And to state the obvious…chemicals stored a mile or two upstream from water source??

Do you know what other chemicals are mixed in with the 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol? I have seen reports that 15 to 20 percent of the mixture are other types of chemicals. Lastly the 1 part per million. Do you believe that adding one drop of the chemical concoction to 13 gallons of water (I think this is roughly 1 to 1M) would really produce water that smelled so strongly of the chemicals? I just can not believe it would.

Thanks Again!

January 20, 2014: Thank you so much for helping us! It is terrible here, the state government is not being honest with us and is dismissing the adverse effects and sicknesses people are experiencing after using the water. We all know the water is not safe and we do not know what to do. BLESS YOU FOR YOUR HELP.

January 20, 2014: What about those homes owned by people who spend the winters in the south? If they have no plans to return until spring how will their contaminated lines affect everyone else’s

January 20, 2014: Yes, there’s a bit of misleading info out there. To be honest, I’m not even convinced that the water supply is even safe today, fully flushed system or not. Thankfully, I live in Virginia. My rural water supply comes from a well, and I’m on a mountain. When you consider that over 300,000 rural folks can’t have wells and have to have water piped in due to crap groundwater (poisoned by corporations), and then that piped in water is poisoned by the same corporations, it all makes you wonder if the water will ever be truly safe. I feel for the people of West Virginia right now.

January 20, 2014: I am a Boone County, WV Resident caught in the middle of the chemical debachle. Would like to know what the Oily residue is that is present in the water system AFTER Flushing?? I have yet to hear any comments on this from anywhere.

January 20, 2014: We were out of town when the spill happened and did not come home until 3 days later. When we arrived home, my husband shut off the water at the water meter so that none on the bad water could enter our lines. We have NOT used any of the water until this evening. We were told that the only line that we need to flush out is the outside faucet. Is this correct or do we need to flush out all of them?

January 20, 2014: Thank you all for coming here to help!

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West Virginia Water Crisis: Exclusive *Crucial* Information about Flushing

Dr. Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer at the University of South Alabama explains the negative effects of NOT flushing your water on your plumbing and the water quality. He says everyone must flush their water while taking the precaution of opening windows and doors for ventilation. You must also turn off your hot water heater.

People are understandably afraid to follow the instructions to flush, and Dr. Whelton explains why that fear was caused through several instances of misinformation. But he makes it very clear why it is necessary that EVERYONE follow these instructions. Otherwise, contaminated water from any unflushed lines will continue to circulate through everyone’s lines, possibly causing long-term or even permanent damage or contamination.

*The responsibility of ensuring that everyone flushes their lines does fall on the Department of Health and Human Resources.

Dr. Whelton would like to mention and thank his research team from the University of South Alabama: Kevin White, Keven Kelley, Matt Connell, Jeff Gill, Lakia McMillan, Maryam Salehi.

Dr. Whelton is an independent university researcher from the University of South Alabama. He has a PhD in Civil Engineering and studies the effects of contamination on plastic pipes and publishes his research in renowned peer-reviewed journals. You can see his qualifications here: http://www.southalabama.edu/engineering/civil/facultywhelton.html.

Dr. Whelton has another ongoing research project endorsed by the National Science Foundation. I met with the Program Director of Environmental Engineering from the NSF, who traveled here just to see Dr. Whelton’s investigation. Dr. Whelton and his team are taking time away from work to be investigate the effects of this contamination on the pipes. He is also not being paid to be here and had to put up his own money to drive nearly 900 miles, stay in a hotel for nearly a week, and supply the materials to do the testing. Dr. Whelton and his team are here because they care.

Watch the preview of my documentary on the West Virginia Water Crisis to experience a personal story about the history of pollution in the West Virginia’s Chemical Valley.

A Preview: The West Virginia Water Crisis

A Preview of Things to Come:

“The West Virginia Water Crisis: Stop the Cycle of Abuse”

Creative Commons License
West Virginia Water Crisis Preview by Krista Bryson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TLuuaJKMdY.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://westvirginiawatercrisis.wordpress.com.

Erin Brockovich Town Hall Meeting on WV Water Crisis

Thanks for staying tuned, everyone. Here are all the videos I have from the Erin Brockovich Town Hall Meeting. My hope is that someone else will come out with more videos, especially of the mother telling the story of her daughter in the hospital with chemical pneumonitis  (I mentioned this in the last video I posted).

Please continue to check in for updates here, on Twitter (@klbryson), and on my Facebook page (friend or follow me Krista Bryson).

If you only watch one of these, please see Part 7 on how to take steps for change by lobbying local, state, and federal representatives. Erin says, “Make it your business to get involved, and be heard, and be proactive . . . it works.” And she knows from experience.

Part 1: 

Part 2: 

Part 3: 

Part 4: 

Part 5:

Part 6: 

Part 7:

Love In a Time of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol by Cheyenna Layne Weber

When survival is just another word for heartbreak I will usually make a soup.

There is the act of nourishing, of course, and the comfort of garlic and butter steaming. There’s the wrist swirl required to brown the leeks, and then the bubbling that requires watching. Does the broccoli separate easily when pinned with a wooden spoon? Time is measured by tenderness.

It has been well over a year since Sandy washed me out of my Red Hook home in Brooklyn. The trips to housing court, always in a stiff skirt safety-pinned at the waist, have ceased. The government no longer offers emergency assistance for the costs accrued. Most of the businesses in my old neighborhood are back, their lights twinkling in the winter night, and the tides steadily rise and fall at the shore where they belong. Public housing residents still fight mold and generators prop up their aging infrastructure, but this is the stuff of periodic update in the paper of record, no more than a news item for most people. Many believe the storm has passed.

And yet the lived experience lingers on. Neural pathways lit with trauma, some might say. Or, in the words of others, an affliction of self-pity and not-enough-gumption. Sandy is part of my biological narrative now, part of the ratio of heartbeat to breath, or the algorithm of guts and ribs exposed to fear that is expressed as synapse x, read in eye contact or mouth shape. It informs my thoughts when I’m awake, and dreams when asleep. The storm that crippled my city is always with me.

Charleston, West Virginia, where a state of emergency and ban on water use has rendered the city nearly silent for six days, is my hometown and only thirty miles southeast from the farm where I was raised. Social media puts me in the bathrooms of family friends with red and fuzzy tap water, of shared press releases that say little but reveal everything. The back-to-the-land strategy of my parents, with their hand-dug wells, protects them in this instance, but only marginally. Their economic and physical well-being is still tied to the capital city, where my mother washes dogs for a living, and where my kid sister attends high school. In the holler they’re safe from the pollution, but not its polluting effects, which will infect every aspect of life in the region in coming weeks.

The chemical that has poisoned the city’s water is used as a solvent for processing coal, washing the fossil fuel from the rock and debris that can’t be burned to power our hungry continental grid. It spilled from a tank along the Elk River, near the park where I used to eat fudgesicles by the pool in summer, not far from where my grandfather once took me fishing. A licorice smell spilled over the valley, alerting neighbors to the leak, which the Department of Environmental Protection then investigated. It took hours for authorities to ban water use, and in the meantime it crept into the pipes, leaving a slick along the narrow river and a sickly sweet odor in the air. Photos of a lone man with a small boom floated over the Internet, brought to my eyes by coal burning not-so-very-far from where I write this in central Brooklyn.

The tears this morning were a surprise. Curled under down and safe from the storm and toxic tapwater, in a quiet New York City apartment, I buried my head embarrassed for my lover to see me cry. A familiar feeling welled up from guts and spread over limbs, a powerlessness, followed by the heat of shame creeping up chest to neck and ears, leaving only a hot and panting guilt. This is the psychological legacy of environmental injustice, which I used to imagine I had escaped. This is what it means to be part of a beloved impacted community.

Before Sandy, and before the Freedom Industries chemical leak, I was a kid in Appalachia. We held shelter in place drills at my elementary school, which is just uphill from railroad tracks that carry chemicals along the spine of the Kanawha River. Teachers were just being prudent in leading us to the library and explaining how we would cover the windows and seal the doors, just as my mother was being prudent the day she halted our morning commute after the pop station reported a toxic cloud from a plant, unidentified but of concern, drifting overhead. I was just being prudent when I left West Virginia, taking my history of immunity-linked health conundrums with me, and packed off for someplace I thought would be healthier for my mind and body. Charleston’s nickname is Chemical Valley, and our life expectancy rates reflect this, even in the diaspora. Environmental injustice and trauma become part of your veins and cells, enamel and marrow, and it permeates the economies which underpin our existence. I have tried, but you can’t outrun a system.

We are all implicated, no matter what wells we dig, or what cities we may call home. There are those who assign blame to a political party, but the power of extractive energy industries knows no ideology but profit. They have successfully sought and maintained control of land, and of decision-making in West Virginia, for generations. Those who have opposed them have been targets for terrorism at the hands of armed thugs, and the victims of industry operations have all but disappeared into underclass status. Our bodies share certain markers, even generations from now, not unlike the rings on a tree which differ in size and shape according to seasonal shifts. Those in power will point to “lifestyle” choices, ignoring the systemic pernicious influence of history, unwilling to accept that the shape of what is physiologically determines the shape of what will be.

The truth is, we shelter in place in Appalachia or Brooklyn and hope for the best, knowing this is no prince-on-a-white-horse dilemma for some charismatic politician. Today it is a chemical leak, yesterday it was Sandy, tomorrow will bring another crisis brought on by privileging the pursuit of profit above the rights of people. And while it is true there will be no single prince, that doesn’t make it any less a love story.

As we carry loss in our bones, in our blood, and in our breath, we are less individually unique than our stories and politics would have us believe. No matter where you are in America today, if you claim space for survival—land, water, air, food, or culture—and that space can be made into profits for a corporation, you will quickly find yourself immersed in conflict. And, where there is conflict there is trauma. Cornel West has said “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What justice can we claim together against these invisible systems? Can you love yourself enough to desire justice for others? It comes down to that, because the chief points of the stories told about us is that we deserve this. It takes a lot of love and compassion to think otherwise.

There are obvious needs I can point towards. Cries for FEMA to adequately respond so that organizers aren’t exhausted taking care of our people, instead of organizing for accountability, come to mind. There’s the need for regulation, and in this instance in Kanawha Valley, for the implementation of the Chemical Safety Board’s recommendations. There’s the ongoing fact that without federal oversight backed by political firepower nothing will change at the local level. All of these are concerns.

The greater need is the long-term, however, in creating a loving culture where the impact of crisis is visible and healed, rather than shamed and mocked, and where exchange is regulated to mitigate just this kind of psychic and physical harm. We must present those who would prefer to see us washed away as the terrorists and criminals they are, rather than as Chief Executive Officers worthy of taxpayer-subsidized bonuses. It was King who said the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice, and on this midwinter night I wonder, how can you bend towards that justice with me, and make your back part of that arc?

———-

Cheyenna is from Elkview, Charleston, Gandeeville, and New York City.

I would like to sincerely thank her for offering this beautiful piece of writing to be published here.

She will be sharing it on other blogs and social media, so please see the comments below for other places you can read it and share it from.

Update on Information Presented at Erin Brockovich Town Hall

As I export my video from the Brockovich town hall about the West Virginia Water Crisis, I will be posting my summaries of and take on the information they gave us there, starting with this:

Erin Brockovich speaking at the town hall

We have already become an anecdote. The national news media is now treating this gross negligence on the part of Freedom Industries and the attendant water crisis as an “accident” that is nearly resolved. I watched the news headlines this morning. We weren’t even mentioned by NBC. Our story took less than 30 seconds on Good Morning America, which then had a story immediately following about a picture of Oprah repairing her own toilet. Here is why we are not a passing news story but a huge crisis that is indicative of incredibly far-reaching negligence and abuse:

It is now day 6 since the chemical spill occurred in Charleston, West Virginia and no one is asking why we haven’t complied to the Source Water Protection Program, which requires the state and federal government to comply with the Clean Water Act by taking an inventory of chemicals in the area around the water plants so they are not surprised and are prepared to deal with these chemicals. Where is the Source Water Protection Program and why weren’t those chemicals inventoried? The news media is NOT asking questions that consumers deserve to know.

Some basic facts about MCHM, the spilled chemical: it is a benzene used in coal washing and jet fuel. Other than that, we don’t know much, as this product was created and patented in 1999. We have seen the health effects of this product in the short-term already, but we don’t know what the long-term effects are for exposure at this level.

The State government is now telling residents in the affected counties to flush their water through their system to “get rid of” the contaminated water. As Bob Bowcock of Erin Brockovich’s team explains, you may be exchanging good water out for bad. In many places, the water in people’s lines and systems is still better water than what would now be coming through. So they’re telling people to run hot water for 15 minutes, then cold water for 5 minutes, and to replace your ice and Brita water filters (with no mention of the fact that your refrigerator has a filter, as does your water tank and many other appliances in your home, like your Keurig or other coffee maker).

The water that they are now running through, as many people have shown in photos and videos, is clearly contaminated. 20 minutes of running the water through a home water system is not getting clean water. Because the water it’s being replaced with is still contaminated! Although they’re telling residents 1 parts per million (ppm) is safe, they have no precedent to make that judgment. This limit is an arbitrary number they have given the public to make us feel more in control of this disaster. The fact is that they don’t know what’s safe. Here is a reference point for you: they regulate other chemicals in your drinking water in parts per billion (ppb) and parts per trillion (ppt). So how are they “defining” safe as 1 ppm?

Now, people who are “flushing their systems” are becoming ill because they are breathing in this contaminant. Neither the government or the news media has suggested that people leave their home while the water runs or even open their windows and doors, which Erin’s team urge people to do.

No one has mentioned to us that not only is this chemical dangerous on its own, flowing through a water treatment plant that adds more chemicals to it. If you know much about how chemicals work, you know this can cause chemicals to oxidize and form new, possibly even more harmful, chemicals. This idea has not been presented to the public through the news or by the government or WV American Water in any of their press conferences. Consumer confidence reports explain that they regulate these “disinfection byproducts” like trihalomethanes or haloecitic acids, which are measured in parts per billion because they are carcinogenic and toxic. They are created when chlorine oxidizes organics, and the same thing is happening to this chemical. They have not done the research to find whether the MCHM has oxidized into other chemicals, many of which are much more dangerous than MCHM.

Again, they’re telling residents that after running the water for only 20 minutes it will be safe. This is completely arbitrary. Here’s a clue: Cincinnati has shut down their water intake systems for the next 48 hours.

Adam Jarrell, Operations Manager, Proud West Virginian

Adam is a young, proud West Virginian. He is disappointed in the events of the West Virginia Water Crisis but remains hopeful about turning things around in WV. He talks about the brain drain on our state and offers a hopeful perspective on making a better economy in WV.

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Lee Higginbotham, Putnam County Worker, Out of Work Due to Crisis

Lee offers the perspective of someone who is temporarily out of work due to the West Virginia Water Crisis. Many people claim the crisis is only a minor inconvenience to those affected, but just a few days missed pay can be financially disastrous for some people.

My parents have given store credit to several people who would otherwise be unable to buy food this week. If this goes on for much longer, many say they won’t be able to pay their rent next month.

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Monteea Childers, Business Owner, on a Better Response in Putnam County

Monteea, who had to close her dance studio during the water crisis, describes the disorganized response and different official responses in Putnam County and Kanawha County. She also describes her perspective on this crisis as a long-time resident of “Chemical Valley,” including the realities of living in an area where drinking water and swimming holes are frequently contaminated with chemicals. She believes that this contributes to the high cancer rate in her area.

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