What Does West Virginia Have to Do to Get Your Attention?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Shelves at Krogers remain empty after running out of water in Kanawha City, a neighborhood of Charleston, West Virginia on January 10, 2014 (Tom Hindman/Getty)

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” What a story. I was hooked, and I devoured updates as they trickled out on social media last Thursday.

That's how I noticed a small mention that my hometown in West Virginia had lost its drinking water.

There was a leak of a coal processing chemical. It was stored right by a river, just above a water processing plant. Tap water was declared unsafe for hundreds of thousands of people, including my parents.

No water? Why hadn't I heard about this?

I called my mom.

She made a joke about having to brush her teeth with Gatorade. But she didn't have clear answers to the questions I lobbed at her. What does this leaked chemical do? How long until the tap water is safe? She said they were told to wait for updates, and at least you could flush the toilet.

In the days that followed, the firepower of hundreds of journalists focused on Bridgegate and its political implications.

Meanwhile, my mom sent reports of securing flats of bottled water from Sam's Club. My dad used some of it to wet washcloths and popped them into the microwave for a warm bath.

There were some national headlines about the crisis in West Virginia. A lot of the focus was on the cozy relationship between the coal industry and state politicians. For color, there was also the occasional quote with bad grammar.

Like all places, West Virginia has its idiosyncrasies, but the affected areas are a typical suburban community with hospitals and schools, local businesses and chain restaurants.

Still, as the days passed, social media posts from West Virginia started to sound like a post-apocalyptic twilight zone. Instead of the usual kid pictures and funny videos, friends from home swapped alerts about where the National Guard was distributing water, and news of shuttered businesses, closed schools and canceled surgeries at hospitals. There were also how-to instructions for flushing out home water heaters.

And palpable outrage. People asking, how could this happen?

In both New Jersey and West Virginia, there is the shock of the most basic functions of everyday life being totally disrupted.

In New Jersey, the emails include a smoking gun. It was no accident.

In West Virginia, there is no clear foil yet. The chemical company deserves scrutiny. So do the decades of lax enforcement, the absent federal standards, and the idea that you can take drinking water for granted.

But for a moment, think about turning on your faucet, and being told the water coming out might be poisonous. Think about learning that little is known about a leaked chemical's long-term effects on humans.

The do-not-drink orders are starting to lift in West Virginia. Think what it would take for you to feel safe using that water.

And instead of dismissing West Virginia as an anachronism, let's think more about what it will take to stop this from happening again.


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Comments [40]

Julian Martin from Charleston, West Virginia

“They” Expect Us To Pay For This?
Posted on January 15, 2014 by Sam's Branch
Do “they” really expect us to pay for this? My eyes were burning after I took a shower in the “safe” water that we are now enjoying here in Charleston and surrounding unfortunates. This morning I washed my still burning eyes with bottled water.
We are in real trouble. I am not going to shower in this water as long as I can smell it and for sure will not drink this stuff. We can’t or at least shouldn’t bath in or drink the water now coming into our homes and who wants to wash their clothes in that stinky stuff.
Should we be charged for water that is almost useless? We now have two water bills—one for piped in water and one for bottled water.
Charleston has entered into third world status. Other parts of southern West Virginia have been in the third world for a long time with water problems caused by the coal industry’s underground mining and mountains obliterated with strip mining and its grotesque juiced up version called mountain top removal with left over dirt and rocks dumped into the valleys.
Friends and I have done water testing throughout southern West Virginia. We have found readings of 400 to over 1500 on a conductivity scale where anything over 300 is not good for aquatic life.
A woman named Capito, our representative in Congress and Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate has said nary a word about our contaminated water. Neither has her Democratic opponent, a woman named Tennant, nor Senator Manchin. All three grovel at the feet of the coal industry.
Governor Tomblin fell all over himself trying to disassociate the coal industry from the chemical spill—he too grovels before big coal. The chemical that has poisoned our water supply is used by the coal industry to clean coal.
I am mad as hell. After the shower last night that made my eyes burn, I cursed big coal with words that would catch this paper on fire. Big coal destroyed the sight in my fathers left eye and they are destroying the mountains all around our home place at Emmons on Big Coal River and now they are destroying my drinking water.

Jan. 15 2014 10:51 AM

So long as W.Va. voters continue to put conservative "pro business" (read: anti-regulation) politicians into office, incidents like this will continue to occur on a regular basis. To that extent, you really do have yourselves to blame. Nothing will change until a majority of your lawmakers are NOT owned by the coal industry (or Tea Party loons, who do the industry's bidding for free); it's the voters (and only the voters) who have the power to make that happen.

This largely explains the great national yawn at the story: "Gee, what a shame, but things like this happen when regulations are lax." When people hear that the chemical was stored just yards from the drinking water supply, the response is "well, what did you expect?" Will a month of living with bottled water make enough of an impression on people, to make a difference at the voting booth? We'll see. If not, it'll be business as usual, and you can expect more shrugs at the next W.Va. spill/fire/explosion/mine disaster.

For those who asked, NY State has very strict regulations about what activities go on in the watershed, and the rules are enforced with zeal. Republican rhetoric about these "job-killing" regulations is largely (and wisely) ignored.

Jan. 15 2014 04:09 AM
djw from Athens Ohio

This would be good story for On the Media and why zilch on Sunday talk shows and zilch in USA Today the next day on Charleston and chemical valley and five plus days of water shut off. Thank goodness I live upstream in this case but accidents both water and air contamination are too common and governments of both WV and OH are more interested in "money" "jobs" and rumors of jobs than health and well being of residents.

Jan. 15 2014 02:22 AM

Hey YaYa, If you use electricity you then you support the coal industry. Or do you now know where your electricity comes from?

Jan. 14 2014 06:49 PM

Sorry, West Virginia, but you may have many chemicals but less population density and therefore the national press cover you less.

If a NY-metro area chemical plant has a catastrophic accident... the coverage will be plenty.

So, this may be a question for WNYC's On the Media and CNN's Reliable Sources.

In my view, chemical spills and explosions may be getting attention... but perhaps neither the risk nor the accidents are taken seriously enough.


A train derailed in Quebec a few months ago, killing almost 50 in an oil explosion. Many more were injured. A few months before that, a fertilizer storage shed in Texas exploded, killing more than a dozen and injuring many more. Then there was the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf.

Look at Carl Prine's reports from Pittsburgh, Terror on the Tracks in 2006. They were picked up by PBS/ Expose for a two-part series.

Or from 2003, Now with Bill Moyers on chemical plant vulnerability in NJ.

Reports like those regularly warn the public and the regulators, yet accidents continue. They always will because citizens demand little, regulators and politicians are wimps (or are captured by industry), and industry apparently has low standards for itself.

Jan. 14 2014 12:36 PM
Slate D from Memphis

Go fuck yourself.

Jan. 14 2014 10:37 AM
Alice Klugherz from east village

Dear Anna Sale,

With some due respect; get a grip. In many of the places where FRACKING is taking place this kind of "accident" has already happening. This is not a new story, this is an old story that will happen again and again as long as there is FRACKING. It is not a different story it is basically the same one! Most of the wells will eventually leak. I am more then sorry you did not relate to it when you talked about this "accident" it is NOT a separate issue. I am also sorry that NPR advertises "natural" gas. There are many families that can NEVER drink the water from their own wells again!

Jan. 14 2014 09:26 AM
WV Born and Raised from wv

Great, another reason to point fingers at the coal industry. There are all kinds of chemicals in the "Chemical Valley". Had this been a chemical used to make plastic milk jugs, would you all be blaming the milk industry? We need more laws, no doubt about that. God only knows what exists us there. I'm sure a lot of it is not used by anyone in the state. At this point, I thank God it wasn't something worse. The coal industry didn't cause this, a chemical company did.

Jan. 14 2014 09:24 AM
steve shay from Seattle

Anna's main thrust in her story is that the media has ignored your water tragedy. I just went to and counted 32 articles on the unsafe tap water. I also counted about 12 such stories on While I agree that Bridgegate has gotten more (undeserved) attention than West Virginia's water crisis, Anna might have some explaining to do to her bosses considering NPR, and its competitors, have been all over this critical story.

Jan. 14 2014 09:22 AM
momof3 from nitro wv

No worries...down that this chemical is moving downstream towards ohio im sure coverage will be more informative.

Jan. 14 2014 08:33 AM
Sean McCracken

I found Ms. Sale's article/editorial quite fair and accurate.

Jan. 14 2014 08:33 AM
dagrandma from West Virginia

YaYa from New York: Why don't you study West Virginia politics a little more deeply and come back and join us when you're not quite as ignorant of the facts.

Jan. 14 2014 08:11 AM
Cindy from SC

Anna, thank you for a thoughtful and compelling article.

Yaya, your comments are ill informed and hurtful.

Scientist, I agree that Yaya's comments were shameful. It seems to me that making fun of WV is still okay somehow. Well, it's not.

Jan. 14 2014 08:01 AM
joann (aka) JoJo from charleston wv

Some say wv aré unlearned,the person front NY really doesn't show much education at all,also lacking compassion,caring,and a big lack of heart,ive lived in wv my whole life,there were times i had to Li e in other states for different reasons,but the love ive felt in wv made me always come home!i feel sorry for you to say such a hateful statement!Ill pray for you that the Lord get ahold of your heart,Yes we have chemicals in wv,and at times its been problems a nd dangerous,but all states have problems in different ways,I myself wldnt want the crime and mayhem that NY has,but I sure wldnt say you or your state deserves it!!I wld pray the crime rate wld go down,we west Virginias stick togather and aré very thankful for the help from other states,SHAME on you!!!know that Ill pray the Lord gets ahold of your hateful heart and put compassion Where hate is,be praying for you whom ever u aré!!!!

Prayerfully JoJo

Jan. 14 2014 03:56 AM
Christy from NYC

Thanks for this article, Anna. Is there any way folks reading this can help?

Jan. 14 2014 01:56 AM
Sarah from Nitro from NYC

Hi Anna,

As a fellow West Virginian who is living out of state I can empathize with your frustration and questions for and about your loved ones. Just know that someone else gets it. Thank you for speaking out about our state in a larger, wider platform so that perhaps those higher up and with more influence may see what is happening in WV and perhaps change can begin to be made. Gods Bless.

Jan. 14 2014 01:31 AM
WV Raised from southern

Yaya, seriously?!? That's some of the worst things I've heard since this happed. The fact that you would have said something like that further proves you were not loved as a child, and for that I'm sorry. Many men go to work straight out of high school to support the damily they love. Name a job an 18 uear old can get making 23 dollars an hour when minimum wage is $7.15 amd the average household income is $40,000. It isn,t my people making horrible choices, they live with the cards they-re dealt for the people they love. Compassion goes so far during times like these and my people need that compassion. You saying things like that is very ignorant andshows you have no clue what love or compassion really is. You should never become a mother. This is a government issue. This is a test. They take some of the strongest people in our country's water, away, then they ultimarely control the population. This perfectly indicates how fast and hard the eest of the country would fall if the same thing happened. Every single person would show you compassion if you were in need. If we want positive change and sustainable energy, I know at least 2,000 hard working unemployed men and women that need jobs.

Jan. 14 2014 01:14 AM
ChuffedMountaineer from expatWVian

The article mentioned that the do-not-drink orders for tap water are starting to be lifted, but that is because the contaminant is below 1 part-per-million in the water. The water still smells terrible, and that ratio of 1ppm is based on lethal animal testing dosage. At that ratio the chemical will only kill 50% of animals in the lab. There are NO studies done on long term effects, actual safe levels, or anything of the like.

Jan. 14 2014 12:39 AM
TLMace from Charleston, West Virginia

Hey Yaya, it would be a different story if it was your children and family. The coal industry here in West Virginia is not to blame. The negligence of Freedom industries is to blame. Keep your mouth shut when you know nothing of our state, our people or our situation.

Jan. 14 2014 12:25 AM
Andie from WV

To YAYA: consider this your invitation to take a nice long swim in the Elk River.

Jan. 13 2014 11:39 PM
Niki from Charleston, WV

Thanks Anna for aa well written piece! The last 5 days have been horrible. I would like to know why my family across the country aren't hearong more. If this hapoened in another country, there would be outrage and a influx of "How can we help?" from our neighbors.
For anyone who thinks this is just a "West Virginia coal industry and crooked politicians let them eat cake" sort of problem, I would like to share that only 2 states in the ENTIRE U.S. have made it illegal to pull water from rivers to serve the public. This means that this problem could happen to anyone. LET ME REPEAT THAT. ANYONE. And unless you live COMPLETELY off the grid and the sun or some river is generating power to run your laptop and your phone is satellite driven, you benefit from the coal industry. I am a native of NJ and love living here in the mountain state. I have worked with and met many engineers and chemists- some of the smartest folks I can imagine since I graduated from college and made this place my home. Please think before you speak. Every state has its idiosyncracies and if think yours does not, I encourage you to look in the mirror.

Jan. 13 2014 11:19 PM
TERRI from Charleston

I think what people should learn from this is where are all of the promises of Homeland Security? I have lived near or in Charleston most of my life. The industry the chemical is used in is irrelevant. There are many chemicals manufactured here and in several other states, and most are shipped via the rivers in barges to other states and eventually some reach other countries. We could all act like complete Yaya jerks and say the people of New York deserved the Towers falling, people supporting coal deserve to be poisoned, those are asinine statements. It could have been a tanker truck of chlorine, if you drink enough bleach you will die, But, after the attacks on 9/11, all of our government officials were supposed to work together to have emergency plans in place. How could a water company believe having the rivers in the Kanawha Valley as their only source of water, without even a single days worth of drinking water in emergency storage tanks was a good plan? In the time they have sat and tested the water waiting for these levels to drop they could have easily drilled several fresh water wells, it's very easy to reach the water table in this area. I hope this opens the eyes of every single city in the US. What if the next terror attack is a common every day chemical that is casually driven to your water supply and dumped, what is the emergency plan? This spill took out four major hospitals, why are all four on the same water supply? Extremely poor planning, that is why. This isn't a coal problem, this could be EVERY city in America's problem

Jan. 13 2014 11:13 PM
Home is WV

To Ya Ya from NY...That is like telling the people in the Midwest that they "get what they deserve" for choosing to live in tornado alley. I am sure that the people in this state wouldn't fight so hard for coal jobs if there was an abundance of good jobs to be had in other industries. Unfortunately in the southern part of our state it is how many men support their families. Imagine someone trying to take away your livelihood without giving you an alternative way to make a comparable living. You might not agree with it but then I am sure that you have probably not had to deal with the same issues so therefore you should keep your mouth shut and not be such a judgmental jackass. I hope that you never find yourself in a position where you require compassion and have to deal with someone like yourself. Then again, maybe at is exactly what you need.

Jan. 13 2014 09:59 PM
Martha from Ohio

We live on the Ohio border with WV, can see WV hills from our back windows. My husband was born in WV. Our hats are off the the tenacious reporter who told the CEO of the Freedom, when he was trying to duck the news conference: "Wait a minute. We aren't done!" Awesome! In a single terse sentence, that reporter showed more backbone than most legislators ever. The same day and the next, Kraton, in Belpre, Ohio had 2 different leaks of a chemical, which caused 'a minor fish kill in a local creek...'

Jan. 13 2014 09:57 PM
Hope Casto

Thank you, Anna!

Jan. 13 2014 09:47 PM
Colleen Anderson from Charleston, WV

Thank you, Anna. We are proud of you!

Jan. 13 2014 09:37 PM

Yaya, what an awful thing to say. The people of West Virginia do not "deserve" poisoned tap water any more than you do. West Virginians are victims of the coal industry and many are idiotic enough to support it, falsely thinking it brings them jobs when in fact most profits are shipped out of state. It's easy for you to be so cruel to the people of my great state from behind your keyboard while trying to cover your cruelty with compassion for 'the children'. If you saw the beauty that the coal industry and their bought and paid for polititians are trying to erase you might change your tone. We need to educate, not 'let them drink the coal water.'

Jan. 13 2014 09:02 PM
Tema Leviter from Long Island, NY

This story piqued my interest for 2 reasons:
First, I lived in Charleston for a couple of years and was always amazed by the quantity of chemicals surrounding the city. There were chemical lakes, and frequently the air smelled of this or that chemical.
Secondly, I have visited many countries where the tap water is not drinkable, and again, always marvelled about how lucky we are, here in the US, that most of the time, drinking water from the tap is nothing we ever think twice about.
Life is very, very different when a basic need like water is not readily available. I feel for the West Virginians, who were very hospitable to my husband and me for the time that we were there.

Jan. 13 2014 08:57 PM

This is directed towards Yaya, from NY! You are an uneducated moron! What do you know about the people from WV? Nothing! You are just stereotyping! Please continue spewing your hate-filled idiotic views, it makes for a good humorous read!

Jan. 13 2014 08:31 PM
Sallye from Charleson, WV

Well done, Anna.

Jan. 13 2014 08:11 PM
Jon Lane from Charleston, WV

A chemical storage facility, placed above the water processing plant for 9 counties and over 300,000 people, and one that was and is NOT regulated by any governmental agency, is tantamount to putting a rifle range near an elementary school. It was only a matter of time.

This is the paradox that West Virginia is used to and lives with every day.

Thank you, Anna, and love your hair. : )

Jan. 13 2014 07:59 PM
Scientist from West Virginia

The quote from Yaya summarizes it all: "these people." West Virginians are intellectually lacking and morally inferior. "They" get what they deserve. This is shameful and would cause outrage and censorship if the targeted group was racially, ethnically or sexually defined.

Jan. 13 2014 07:54 PM
Yaya from NY

I feel bad for the children that is all. Those people brought this on themselves. They love the coal industry ( which is only interested in its profits) let them drink coal water. These people are the first from its politicians all the way to its citizens rallying against the EPA and the federal government. But they want FEMA to come and deliver them water now. The federal govt shouldn't do anything , let's W.Virgina ejected leaders solve for them. Let them eat cake for their wreckless decision making.

Jan. 13 2014 07:45 PM
Catherine Martin

Thank you Anna.

Jan. 13 2014 07:33 PM

Couldn't agree with you more Rich. Google if it is used in fracking and you can find the following on pro and anti fracking sites. I am interested to see where your info comes from.

CORRECTION: 1/12/2014 FRACKING Chemicals in your water.
Methylcyclohexane is a natural product which is isolated from light petroleum distillates, while methylcyclohexane methanol (the spilled chemical) is a manufactured product, used to float purified coal fines in a “frother” processing step.
The first is a hydrocarbon with toxicity similar to kerosene; the second is an alcohol with toxicity similar to octanol.
Neither of them belongs in drinking water, and it will be interesting to see if WV officials handle the fouling of nearly a third of the state’s surface waters — with nary a warning from the coal processing company — with the severity the situation deserves.
Methylcyclohexane is on a list contained in an April 2011 report, CHEMICALS USED IN HYDRAULIC FRACTURING (see page 23 of the report), prepared for the US House’s Committee on Energy and Commerce .

Jan. 13 2014 07:11 PM
Rich from South Charleston, WV

People that have absolutely zero expertise or reliable information should not make conclusive statements.

This chemical is a alcohol based solvent, and has other uses besides washing coal. It has been reported, long before this accident, to be one of the ingredients in several frack "cocktails."

Further, as the contents of most frack cocktails are still an ugly secret that the companies are loathe to disclose (why would they want you to know what poisons they are pumping in the earth, or toxic waste?), how in the world would you have any idea.

Best to keep quiet if you don't have a clue. Makes you look a lot less, well, clueless.

Jan. 13 2014 06:53 PM

No Todd nothing like that happens elsewhere like NY. Tell us how Indian Point works out for you in the long run. Oh I see there was an incident there just a week ago. No nuke plants near the population centers of WV. Just common sense I guess. Chris the chemical had nothing to do with fracking. Absolutely nothing at all. It is used for cleaning coal. Chemicals are stored in every state and used for everything and that just happens to be what that one is used for. Why do you need it to be connected to fracking?

Jan. 13 2014 06:25 PM

Todd, do you know what's upriver from your drinking water source? If not, maybe you should go look rather than make quick statements about "common sense." I'm pretty sure this is happening in a lot more places than just West Virginia. And the idea that it doesn't happen in other places is crazy. It happens often, just not to this extent. Rather than dismissing West Virginia, or writing the state off as ignorant, take a look around your community and state. Find out where your drinking water comes from and then walk one, two or three miles upstream. I'd be interested to know what you find out.

Jan. 13 2014 06:25 PM

"There was a leak of a coal processing chemical. It was stored right by a river, just above a water processing plant." Well, hello!!! There is a reason this doesn't happen in other places. Common sense, folks.

Jan. 13 2014 06:06 PM

Will someone please make the connection between these new chemicals and their unknown health affects and Fracking?!!!!

Jan. 13 2014 05:29 PM

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