January 15, 2014
When 35-year-old Jason Eldridge arrived home last Thursday from his job as a systems administrator with a healthcare company in Charleston, West Virginia, he acted no differently than he normally would: he made dinner (that night, it was tacos) for his wife, his two-year-old daughter, and himself. Then the trio sat down to eat. It wasn’t until afterwards, however, that they turned on the evening news and saw the main story: the tap water he’d used to fix his family’s meal was poisoned.
By now, it’s been thoroughly reported that Charleston-based Freedom Industries — a small, two-week old company that stored and distributed coal-processing chemicals from 11 huge, 48,000-gallon containment units on the shores of the Elk River — accidentally allowed 7,500 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) to seep into the region’s main water source. The Elk supplies drinking water to some 300,000 residents through the publicly traded West Virginia American Water company. And because not much is known about MHCM, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was forced to order last Thursday that no one use the water flowing into homes and businesses in a nine-county region surrounding Charleston.
At first, Eldridge and his wife weren’t concerned. They noticed the liquorice — or maybe coconut oil — smell of the coal chemical when they flushed their toilets. But they decided not to let it worry them that first night.
"I’m not someone who tends to freak out about things," Eldridge told The Verge yesterday. “So it wasn’t until the next day, last Friday, that I realized, ‘Ok, this might be a problem.’”
When Eldridge’s two-year-old woke up Friday, she suffered flu-like symptoms. It didn’t appear to Eldridge that this was related to the water leak (his wife had been sick in the days prior), but his daughter’s fever and coughing and sneezing made him nervous. “I gotta get water for my family,” he told himself.
On his lunch break Friday — with his wife and child at home — he made a 45-minute drive to a mall in Huntington, which had not been affected by the water crisis. Eldridge started there, hoping to find bottled water and disposable 5-gallon water jugs at whichever store had any left to sell.
He visited Walmart, a Foodland grocery store, then a Target — all sold out in what Eldridge called “a trail of failure.” Then, at a sporting goods store, a clerk asked if he had a bucket with him to fill it up with water from an untainted Huntington tap. He didn’t, and after he and the clerk spent 20 minutes searching the store for one, they gave up. They were also sold out.
Eldridge drove back to work — easily an hour late returning from his lunch break — empty-handed.
"Under the Radar"
Freedom Industries — which was actually a conglomerate of smaller companies owned and operated by at least one convicted felon — had managed to escape the oversight of not only West Virginia’s DEP, but also the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The reason? Various juries are still out. But consensus has grown around the idea that Freedom Industries’ chemicals were not considered “a hazardous material,” a DEP cabinet secretary told the Associated Press, so “it flew under the radar.”
The main problem was that Freedom avoided having to prove that it had designed a backup plan if its chemicals breached the porous retaining wall surrounding its toxic containment units and seeped into the ground. Or, worse, seeped into the river. Lack of worry about chemicals flowing into the river, in retrospect, seems absurd. Freedom Industries’ containment facilities sit maybe 50 feet from the Elk River’s shoreline, up a steep hillside covered with mud and leafless trees and bushes. “The idea that there would not be concern about those chemicals seeping into the river is a big problem,” Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, told The Verge. ”If you would’ve had proper secondary containment on the site, this wouldn’t have excited anyone’s interest at all.”