- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Ever since chemicals spilled into the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginia residents in January, Charleston resident Scott McMillion and his family have used their public supply for just one task: flushing their toilet. Distrustful and angry, he’s now teaching locals how to trap and purify rainwater as a drinking source.

He’s among many in this corner of West Virginia who have taken matters into their own hands and changed water consumption habits, possibly for good. Many don’t trust official declarations that the water is again safe to drink, nearly three months after the chemical smelling of licorice ran into the Elk River last Jan. 9, throwing lives into disarray.

“When tests from my home come back clear, then I will use the water,” said McMillion, founder of Charleston Rain Catchers, a group that teaches people to collect rainfall in containers and filter it. “My family’s concern is that there doesn’t seem to be hard science to tell us what long-term effects there are to this chemical exposure.”

He’s not alone in his fears. Grassroots groups are providing fearful residents thousands of gallons of clean drinking water from independent sources, some brought in from other states. Others are surviving on expensive bottled water for cooking or drinking, or taking steps like McMillion to find other alternative sources. Distrust runs deep in West Virginia, a coal-mining state with a legacy of environmental contamination.


Paul Sheridan, an attorney who lives in Charleston with his wife, has changed his approach to dining. When eating out, he always checks what water was used in preparing food or beverages.

“It is never far from anyone’s mind. You go out to eat and have to ask if they are still cooking with bottled water. If you work in an office where people make coffee, you have to ask,” said Sheridan, whose family doesn’t drink their tap water.

Sheridan is one of a growing number of people who have filed formal complaints with the Public Service Commission , saying he and his wife don’t feel they should pay for water when it was undisputedly contaminated. “If you buy a quart of milk from the store and get it home and discover it is spoiled, the grocery has a responsibility to give you a refund,” he said.

Susan Small, a spokeswoman for the state regulatory agency, said the commission can’t award damages but can review bills and determine if they need to be recalculated. Sheridan’s complaint is pending, she said.

Meanwhile, some area residents reconcile themselves to live with nagging worries, though some have moved or are thinking of doing so.

Leah Devine, a Spanish language instructor, still lives in an affected area of downtown Charleston but is closing on a house elsewhere in the state. She said she experienced skin irritation and burning eyelids when she showered around 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 9.

“I don’t trust the water, but I’m also moving because of how this situation was handled,” she said. “The chemical was pouring into our water since early that morning and we were not alerted until after 5 p.m. I can’t trust that if another, potentially lethal, chemical enters our water or air that we will be notified in time.”

On Jan. 9, an industrial storage container spilled around 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM, a chemical used in coal production, a half mile above a drinking water intake in the river. The drinking ban was lifted Jan. 13, when authorities said levels of the chemical MCHM had dropped below a federal safety threshold of 1 part per million. President Jeff McIntyre of the water supplier West Virginia American Water even sipped a glass of the water in front of journalists soon after.

But many residents have remained wary.

The Elk River is a nearly 180-mile tributary of the Kanawha River, which flows in turn into the Ohio River. Both rivers flow through a part of West Virginia many call “Chemical Valley” because it’s home to one of the largest concentrations of U.S. chemical plants.

But since state and federal funds for water distribution stopped last month, many grassroots organizations have stepped in to help distribute clean water, alleviating the expense for many residents still distrustful of the tap.

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