How a Toxic Leak Made One Town the Subjects of a Live Human Experiment

A toxic chemical leak, a contaminated water supply, and a long wait for answers in West Virginia.

Robert Thaw and his wife Laura fill a bucket while their son Rob stands by. They collected the water in order to avoid using their tap water which was contaminated by the Freedom Industries spill of MCHM into the Elk River.  
National Journal
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Marin Cogan
March 27, 2014, 5 p.m.

CHAR­LE­STON, W.Va. — Robert Thaw was in the woods when he first heard the news. Every Thursday night, the Char­le­ston-based sur­vey­or and his friends take their moun­tain bikes to the Kanawha State Forest for a long, pun­ish­ing ride to work off stress and en­ergy from the week. That night, Jan. 9, they emerged from the forest to find a note stuck to the wind­shield of his friend’s truck.

The note was from his friend’s wife. “The wa­ter com­pany has is­sued a do not use or­der. Come home!” it read. Robert loaded his moun­tain bike in­to the back of his Jeep Laredo and raced to his house.

While he was on his bike ride, his wife, Laura, an oc­cu­pa­tion­al ther­ap­ist, had been at home rins­ing steaks for din­ner. First came the robo-call from the wa­ter com­pany. On TV, West Vir­gin­ia’s Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, Earl Ray Tomblin, was de­clar­ing a state of emer­gency. A chem­ic­al mix­ture con­tain­ing something called 4-methyl­cyc­lo­hex­ane­meth­an­ol — news an­chors stumbled over the name — had leaked in­to the Elk River less than two miles up­stream from a wa­ter com­pany’s in­take site. It was now wind­ing its way through the wa­ter sup­plies of 300,000 people in Char­le­ston and the sur­round­ing nine counties. “Nobody really knows how dan­ger­ous it could be. However, it is in the sys­tem,” Tomblin said. “Please don’t drink, don’t wash with, don’t do any­thing with the wa­ter.”

Laura looked at the steaks for a mo­ment be­fore throw­ing them in the trash.

She grabbed her purse and went straight to the gro­cery store. It was a chaot­ic scene: people grabbing gro­cery carts and run­ning to stock as much wa­ter as they could. Roughly a dozen 911 calls came in that night about people fight­ing over the wa­ter; po­lice were ordered to step up patrols around con­veni­ence stores. A long line ex­ten­ded from the back of Laura’s store, where em­ploy­ees were hand­ing out everything they had. She spot­ted her moth­er-in-law, slipped in line be­side her, and got two cases of bottled wa­ter. By the time she reached the re­gister, the store had sold out.

Six weeks later, when I vis­ited West Vir­gin­ia, the brief flurry of na­tion­al in­terest in the wa­ter crisis was fad­ing. Pres­id­ent Obama’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress had come and gone with no men­tion of the Amer­ic­ans liv­ing without clean wa­ter only 350 miles from the na­tion’s cap­it­al. Na­tion­al news stor­ies about the crisis were be­com­ing few­er and fur­ther between.

But the Thaws had not gone back to us­ing the wa­ter. Nor had many of their neigh­bors. It’s im­possible to know just what per­cent­age of people were still re­fus­ing to use the wa­ter, but a month after the spill, Rahul Gupta, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Kanawha Char­le­ston Health De­part­ment, con­duc­ted an in­form­al sur­vey at a com­munity meet­ing of about 200 people. Only 1 per­cent were drink­ing the wa­ter.

At wa­ter dis­tri­bu­tion sites — gi­ant tanks the city had driv­en in from Pennsylvania and left in park­ing lots — loc­al res­id­ents con­tin­ued to gath­er throughout the day. Re­tir­ees, vet­er­ans, moms, and kids with soggy, wet knees hauled Rub­ber­maid stor­age bins and Aunt Je­mima syr­up jugs and iced tea bottles and gas cans — any­thing that would hold wa­ter. “Very few people who can af­ford not to are drink­ing the wa­ter,” says Gary Zuck­ett, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the West Vir­gin­ia Cit­izen Ac­tion Group.

So little was known about MCHM — the chem­ic­al that had leaked in­to the wa­ter sup­ply — that it was ba­sic­ally im­possible to as­sess the risks. “We don’t know any­thing about its chron­ic tox­icity; we don’t know any­thing about the dermal ex­pos­ure — which is really im­port­ant be­cause people are not only ex­posed through in­ges­tion but also skin ab­sorp­tion — and we don’t know about in­hal­a­tion,” says Jen­nifer Sass, a seni­or sci­ent­ist at the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil who stud­ies chem­ic­al reg­u­la­tion. “We don’t know any­thing about the ef­fects on de­vel­op­ing in­fants or chil­dren or new­borns, which is very crit­ic­al be­cause what it could cause in chil­dren could be dif­fer­ent from adults. We don’t know any chron­ic ef­fects at all: dis­ease, can­cer, long-term dis­ab­il­it­ies, long-term de­vel­op­ment, neur­o­tox­icity, im­mun­o­tox­icity — we don’t know any sys­tem­ic or long-term ef­fects.”

The site of the spill had once been a Pen­nzoil/Quaker State dies­el ter­min­al, but now the 60-year-old hold­ing tanks on the banks of the Elk River stored chem­ic­als, in­clud­ing MCHM, that are used to help wash coal. Free­dom In­dus­tries, foun­ded in 1986, was the com­pany that held the MCHM.

The most re­cent piece of fed­er­al le­gis­la­tion to deal with chem­ic­als like MCHM was the Tox­ic Sub­stances Con­trol Act, a bill passed in 1976. TSCA ef­fect­ively grand­fathered in 62,000 chem­ic­als — MCHM among them — when it was ap­proved. Be­cause these chem­ic­als did not pose “un­reas­on­able risk,” they re­quired no test­ing by gov­ern­ment reg­u­lat­ors. But thou­sands of new chem­ic­als have since come on the mar­ket, and oth­ers that were used only in small amounts in 1976 are near-ubi­quit­ous now. The only tests avail­able on MCHM were per­formed on rats and were sponsored by the man­u­fac­turer of the sub­stance, East­man Chem­ic­al. (A spokes­man for East­man notes that the tests were con­duc­ted by in­de­pend­ent labs and that the com­pany isn’t plan­ning to spon­sor more stud­ies on the chem­ic­al.) 

Here’s what a data sheet on the chem­ic­al, provided by East­man, says. Un­der the sec­tion titled “Haz­ards Iden­ti­fic­a­tion”: “WARN­ING! HARM­FUL IF SWAL­LOWED! CAUSES SKIN AND EYE IR­RIT­A­TION. AT EL­EV­ATED TEM­PER­AT­URES, VA­POR MAY CAUSE IR­RIT­A­TION OF EYES AND RES­PIR­AT­ORY TRACT.” The chem­ic­al’s LD-50 on rats — the meas­ure sci­ent­ists use to de­term­ine the leth­al dose re­quired to kill half of the pop­u­la­tion of a study — is 825 mg/kg. As for oth­er meas­ures of po­ten­tial harm — car­ci­no­gen­i­city, re­pro­duct­ive tox­icity, spe­cif­ic tar­get or­gan tox­icity — the sheet says “no data avail­able.” It re­peats that phrase 152 times.

Four days after the spill, on Jan. 13, the wa­ter com­pany and state of­fi­cials began in­struct­ing res­id­ents in cer­tain areas to flush their taps, after which they were told they could be­gin us­ing the wa­ter again. The basis for this de­cision was a re­com­mend­a­tion by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion — which re­lied on data provided by the man­u­fac­turer. While con­ced­ing that “there are few stud­ies on this spe­cial­ized chem­ic­al,” CDC said it had “used the avail­able in­form­a­tion “¦ to de­term­ine how much MCHM a per­son could likely in­gest without res­ult­ing in ad­verse health ef­fects.” The ver­dict was that res­id­ents could be­gin us­ing their wa­ter again when the MCHM level was one part per mil­lion — roughly half a gal­lon in an Olympic-size pool.

But CDC also said that preg­nant wo­men, “out of an abund­ance of cau­tion,” might not want to drink the wa­ter un­til the chem­ic­al was gone from the wa­ter sup­ply al­to­geth­er. And if CDC thought preg­nant wo­men shouldn’t drink the wa­ter, what about their chil­dren? To make mat­ters more con­fus­ing, not every­one agreed with CDC’s re­com­mend­a­tion of one part per mil­lion. Us­ing the same data that the agency had re­lied on, Sass came up with a very dif­fer­ent cal­cu­la­tion — 0.025 parts per mil­lion.

Even ba­sic facts about the spill seemed hard to come by. At first, a state De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion spokes­man told the press, “We’re con­fid­ent that no more than 5,000 gal­lons es­caped.” More than two weeks later, Free­dom In­dus­tries dis­closed that the spill was something closer to 10,000 gal­lons — and that an­oth­er re­l­at­ively un­known chem­ic­al called PPH had been part of the leak. The con­tents of PPH, Free­dom said, were pro­pri­et­ary. (CDC said that al­though in­form­a­tion on PPH was lim­ited, in­form­a­tion provided by the man­u­fac­turer sug­ges­ted lower tox­icity than MCHM.)

Drops in the Bucket National Journal

Mean­while, people were get­ting sick from the tain­ted wa­ter — or at least be­lieved they were. In the first nine days after the spill, more than 400 people had turned up at area hos­pit­als with symp­toms that in­cluded naus­ea, vomit­ing, burn­ing eyes, and rashes that looked like sun­burn dur­ing the cold­est months of winter.

“It’s your de­cision,” Gov. Tomblin said at a press con­fer­ence on Jan. 20. “I’m not go­ing to say ab­so­lutely, 100 per­cent that everything is safe. But what I can say is, if you do not feel com­fort­able, then don’t use it.” As of Feb. 5, schools were con­tinu­ing to close fol­low­ing re­ports of strange smells and symp­toms — in­clud­ing, in at least one case, faint­ing — that they be­lieved was caused by the wa­ter. All the while, the wa­ter con­tin­ued to emit a strange odor: a sickly, sac­char­ine licorice scent. “The fact is,” says Gupta, “we are un­will­ing par­ti­cipants of a live hu­man ex­per­i­ment.”

Six weeks after the spill, Robert Thaw has a new routine. Every oth­er week, he takes a gi­ant 300-gal­lon stor­age tank to an­oth­er wa­ter com­pany in a town about 20 minutes away and fills it with wa­ter for the fam­ily. Be­fore go­ing to bed each night, he goes out and fills four large buck­ets with wa­ter and hauls them in­side. At 5:30 a.m., he comes down the steps of his tim­ber-frame home and clicks the knobs on his kit­chen stove, heat­ing two in­dus­tri­al-sized pots of wa­ter. He waits half an hour un­til the wa­ter is hot be­fore pour­ing it back in­to two plastic buck­ets. Then he car­ries the buck­ets up­stairs.

For the kids he has rigged up something close to a real shower. In­to one buck­et, he drops a foun­tain pump. A cord ex­tends from one end of the pump and plugs in­to a wall in the ad­ja­cent laun­dry closet; from the oth­er end, a clear plastic hose is strung up to the shower head. He’s at­tached a nozzle to the end of the hose and rigged up the re­mote con­trol nor­mally used for Christ­mas tree lights so that his chil­dren can turn on the pump without leav­ing the bath­room. They turn it on to rinse, off to lath­er, and on to quickly rinse again.

He and his wife have a less elab­or­ate set-up: a clear gal­lon wa­ter jug they sawed the top half off of and punched holes in the bot­tom of. They scoop the hot wa­ter and hold the trick­ling jug over each oth­ers’ heads.

Since the spill, his mind has be­gun to ori­ent it­self around a new set of facts. One gal­lon of wa­ter weighs 8 pounds. Each night, when he goes out to the wa­ter tank sit­ting in his drive­way and fills four buck­ets with wa­ter, he has to haul 160 pounds of wa­ter to the house. His fam­ily drinks two gal­lons of wa­ter a day — wa­ter they’re buy­ing from a de­liv­ery ser­vice in Pitt­s­burgh. They use 15 to 18 gal­lons of wa­ter for wash­ing and clean­ing — wa­ter he gets from the neigh­bor­ing town.

When will the wa­ter be safe for their use? And for their chil­dren? “There’s al­ways this de­bate you’re hav­ing with your­self — how long will this go on? Is this worth it?” Robert says. Every morn­ing be­fore he leaves for work, he takes a wine­glass and fills it with tap wa­ter. He dips his nose in­to the glass. “I can smell it right now,” he says. “It’s def­in­itely there.”

Of all the bar­ri­ers keep­ing people from trust­ing the wa­ter again, the smell might be the strongest. The scent still lingers around the site of Free­dom In­dus­tries as though the spill had happened yes­ter­day. This month, a study by sci­ent­ists ex­amin­ing the im­pact of the spill showed that hu­mans can de­tect the odor at an es­tim­ated .15 parts per bil­lion — mean­ing that long after of­fi­cials said it was safe, res­id­ents were still smelling it in their wa­ter. Robert likes to say that “hu­mans did not make it this far eat­ing and drink­ing things that don’t smell right.” They trust their noses over the gov­ern­ment.

Even the loc­al wa­ter com­pany ac­know­ledges how dif­fi­cult it has been for res­id­ents to feel com­fort­able us­ing the faucet. “We real­ize that trust in both pub­lic and private agen­cies was chal­lenged dur­ing this event. Con­flict­ing in­form­a­tion provided by vari­ous sources did not help,” says Laura Jordan, a spokes­wo­man for the West Vir­gin­ia Amer­ic­an Wa­ter Co. “West Vir­gin­ia Amer­ic­an Wa­ter has done its best to make sure our cus­tom­ers re­ceived the most ac­cur­ate and timely in­form­a­tion we could provide. And we worked closely with the West Vir­gin­ia Bur­eau of Pub­lic Health to re­in­force the in­form­a­tion they provided.”

In the face of pub­lic pres­sure, the West Vir­gin­ia Le­gis­lature has passed a bill re­quir­ing the an­nu­al in­spec­tion of above­ground chem­ic­al stor­age tanks. Fol­low­ing cri­ti­cism of the one-part-per-mil­lion threshold, Tomblin dir­ec­ted the Na­tion­al Guard to test at 10 parts per bil­lion and later at two parts per bil­lion for schools. He also provided fund­ing for a team of in­de­pend­ent sci­ent­ists to con­duct in-home tests on the wa­ter. The team is just be­gin­ning to re­lease its pre­lim­in­ary find­ings. Earli­er this month, it re­por­ted that the ini­tial flush­ing re­com­men­ded by the wa­ter com­pany had “mixed ef­fect­ive­ness” — only some of the homes tested after the flush­ing were be­low 10 parts per bil­lion. In April, the sci­ent­ists plan to re­lease their find­ings of a re­view of CDC’s one part per mil­lion threshold.

Also this month, FBI agents des­cen­ded on the site of the com­pany tasked with clean­ing up Free­dom In­dus­tries, seiz­ing com­puters and hard drives. Both the com­pany, Di­ver­si­fied Ser­vices, and Free­dom In­dus­tries are un­der fed­er­al in­vest­ig­a­tion re­lated to the spill. The state De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion later said it was cit­ing Di­ver­si­fied for al­legedly spill­ing crude MCHM in­to a ditch that emp­ties in­to a trib­u­tary of the Kanawha River, which joins with the Elk River in the heart of Char­le­ston.

Laura opens the wash­er and bends over it to in­vest­ig­ate the smell. In the spill’s af­ter­math, she’s been tak­ing the fam­ily’s laun­dry to a Laun­dro­mat a town over, or to their cab­in, three hours away, but the bur­den of ex­tra time and travel in a four-per­son fam­ily with two work­ing par­ents is be­gin­ning to be too much to bear. Re­cently, she began ex­per­i­ment­ing with us­ing tap wa­ter to wash mud­room tow­els and workout clothes. In a few weeks, they’ll try showers. “There’s a very faint sweet­ness to it,” she says. “I smell it ever so faintly.” She car­ries dry laun­dry to the bed­room and be­gins re­mov­ing clothes from the wash, stop­ping every few items to take a whiff. She grabs her hus­band’s bike jer­sey and brings it to her nose. “Oh,” Laura says. “I smell it here. I def­in­itely smell it.”

She loves West Vir­gin­ia. It’s her hus­band’s home, a place where her kids had room to grow up free from the crush­ing de­mands of life in an East Coast city. They also have ac­cess to the state’s myri­ad of nat­ur­al treas­ures. But lately, she is be­gin­ning to won­der wheth­er the costs of life in West Vir­gin­ia don’t out­weigh the be­ne­fits.

Laura had grown up in a place once nick­named the chem­ic­al cap­it­al of the world, Wilm­ing­ton, Del. Her fath­er took his first job out of col­lege at DuPont and stayed there for 35 years. She grew up be­liev­ing she was safe: the ocean she swam in, the wa­ter she drank, the air she breathed.

Then, eight years ago, her moth­er was dia­gnosed with mul­tiple my­el­oma, a can­cer of the plasma cells. Her on­co­lo­gist spec­u­lated that ex­pos­ure to some kind of tox­in could have been the cause. With the best treat­ments avail­able, she lived for 18 months and died be­fore she was 70. Not long after her moth­er’s dia­gnos­is, her fath­er was found to have pul­mon­ary fibrosis, a pro­gress­ive lung dis­ease that causes the tis­sue to thick­en and scar. There is no known cure, and treat­ment is lim­ited. He now uses hos­pice care and re­lies on an oxy­gen tank. Mul­tiple ex­pos­ures to chem­ic­als or ra­di­ation are con­sidered a ma­jor cause. An­oth­er fam­ily mem­ber con­trac­ted an­oth­er kind of can­cer caused by chem­ic­al ex­pos­ure in one out of every four cases.

Laura could nev­er know wheth­er grow­ing up in Delaware’s chem­ic­al cor­ridor was what caused her fam­ily’s health prob­lems. But as she raised her own chil­dren in an­oth­er chem­ic­al val­ley, she was be­set with a sim­il­ar series of un­knowns. Was their drink­ing wa­ter safe? What about the river they raf­ted in? The air they breathed? Laura and Robert had talked about leav­ing, but they had a son about to start high school and a daugh­ter wait­ing to find out where she’d at­tend col­lege that spring. They wondered who would want to buy prop­erty in Char­le­ston now any­way.

The de­cision was mostly made for them. Stay put, at least for now. Pro­tect them­selves as best they could. That might mean nev­er drink­ing the wa­ter again. She wanted it to stop smelling. She wanted to feel com­fort­able enough to wash dishes and shower in it. But it was dif­fi­cult to ima­gine that drink­ing it would ever feel safe.

That af­ter­noon, Laura takes an­oth­er trip to the gro­cery store 20 minutes away to make sure the pro­duce she serves her fam­ily at din­ner isn’t sprayed with po­ten­tially con­tam­in­ated wa­ter. “There’s noth­ing we can do about what’s already happened,” she tells Robert. “We can only move for­ward from here.”

As she passes the wa­ter tank at the Big Lots on her way to buy gro­cer­ies, where people line up to fill their wa­ter jugs, she knows her fam­ily is luck­i­er than most; at least she and Robert had the time, en­ergy, and re­sources to come up with a plan for avoid­ing the wa­ter. While many people aren’t drink­ing the wa­ter, plenty have resigned them­selves to shower­ing in it.

For Laura, the un­cer­tainty is the hard­est part. Not know­ing what the spill means long term; not know­ing when the wa­ter is safe to trust; not know­ing wheth­er a single glass of wa­ter or a life­time of ma­chine-washed laun­dry means ex­pos­ure to a chem­ic­al that could cause more cata­stroph­ic ill­ness.

At din­ner, she boils a large pot of pasta in bottled wa­ter they store in a Rub­ber­maid ther­mos over the sink. Her daugh­ter, Carly, is watch­ing the news in the liv­ing room when a seg­ment about the wa­ter spill comes on. They pause to watch it to­geth­er. On TV they see shots of schools that had con­tin­ued to close a month after the spill. They see res­id­ents who, like them, won’t drink the wa­ter.

They are glad to see that, six weeks after the in­cid­ent, the story hasn’t been en­tirely for­got­ten. But they are con­flic­ted. The re­port also con­tains the usu­al as­sur­ances from of­fi­cials that the wa­ter is safe to drink. “It’s mak­ing West Vir­gini­ans look stu­pid,” Carly says. She thinks it’s miss­ing cru­cial con­text: all of the un­cer­tain­ties that made them feel they couldn’t trust the of­fi­cial re­com­mend­a­tions in the early af­ter­math of the spill. “They’re leav­ing out that they didn’t give good in­form­a­tion to the pub­lic in the first place.”

After it’s over, Laura goes back to the kit­chen and thinks about what she saw. She won­ders aloud: “Is it OK? Are we over­re­act­ing?” The state of emer­gency has been lif­ted. From the out­side, the crisis seems over. But it lives on as a crisis of con­fid­ence. She lifts a large pot of bottled wa­ter onto the stove and sets it to light.


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