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A year later, chemical spills and questions continue

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The 13 white tanks that lined the Elk River just north of downtown Charleston are all gone now. Bankrupt Freedom Industries ripped them apart, tore them down and sold them for scrap.

A year ago today, one of those tanks — Number 396 — leaked 10,000 gallons of chemicals into the Elk. For hours, state and local officials, along with West Virginia American Water, downplayed the incident. The water was still safe to drink, officials told residents. Nothing to worry about, they said.

By late afternoon, that all changed.

Residents reported a strong smell of licorice in their water. West Virginia American noticed the same thing at its water treatment and distribution plant, just 1.5 miles down the Elk from Freedom’s leaking tank. Health officials figured out that they knew precious little about the main chemical involved. Available data on 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, was not nearly enough, it turned out, to support the guarantees local residents had been given for much of the day.

At about 10 minutes before 6 p.m., West Virginia American issued a news release warning residents to use their tap water only for flushing toilets or putting out fires. Shortly after that, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin repeated the warnings in a televised news conference.

“Do not drink it,” the governor told residents. “Do not cook with it. Do not wash clothes in it. Do not take a bath in it.”

It was an unprecedented event in West Virginia. The water company estimated that 300,000 people at homes and businesses in parts of nine counties were without clean water. Hundreds of residents sought medical attention for everything from nausea and vomiting to headache, sore throat and a cough.

For some residents, the “do not use” order stayed in effect for more than a week. For others, concerns about what was in the water remained for long after that. One survey showed that, as late as April, only a third of Kanawha Valley residents had resumed drinking their tap water.

Today, many people are drinking the water again. State leaders passed legislation to keep what occurred at Freedom Industries from ever happening again. Federal prosecutors are trying to put the men who ran Freedom Industries in jail.

But chemical leaks into the state’s water still happen all the time…

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