Chose Water or Chose Life: The Elk River Chemical Spill

It was Thursday, January 9, 2014. For many of us, that Thursday has long since drifted past hyped Super Bowl ads, groundhog shadows, and valentines. But for those living in Charleston, West Virginia and nine surrounding counties, that was the day over 300,000 people could no longer trust their tap water.

Forty days have passed since the Elk River Chemical spill. Over 10,000 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) and PPH (largely unregulated chemicals used to clean coal) leaked into the Elk River from a nearby Freedom Industries storage facility.  Fifteen percent of West Virginia’s residents were told by state officials to not drink, cook, or use their tap water for bathing immediately after the spill was detected. Even after the ban was lifted residents continue to report smells of black licorice, associated with MCHM in the water supply. Government reports of safety are conflicting at best as more information is uncovered about just how unregulated toxic chemicals are in the United States and how little we know about the safety of our water systems.

What has this spill meant for the local communities who have been most affected? How are low-income families surviving what has been called the “one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century“? What does this mean for everyone connected to the Elk River, a river that feeds into the Ohio River and flows down to the Mississippi River?

Below is an email interview with staff at WV FREE, a reproductive health, rights, and justice organization located in Charleston, WV.

WV FREE is organizing their community to ask about their right-to-know, “the legal principle that an individual has the right to know the chemicals to which they may be exposed in their daily living.”  They are also working across environmental justice, reproductive justice, and women’s health territories, with a “special focus on teens and low-income, rural women and women of color.” They know the region (WV FREE was founded in 1989) and the needs and wants of the community.

This interview was born from a desire to share more broadly this story from the perspective of those most impacted. I wanted to hear more voices I recognized – poor, rural, women, surviving. I deeply appreciate the time WV FREE spent on answering my questions. Their focus on critical cross-issue work and alliances is even more important as the low-income communities don’t see this disaster from a mutually exclusive environment or health perspective.  To quote Audre Lorde, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” And that’s why WV FREE is organizing their community to demand change.


Q: The recent Elk River chemical spill impacted nine counties, over 300,000 people. Who has been the most impacted and what do you see as some potential long-term consequences? 

A: Although all individuals, small businesses, and organizations in the region have been impacted in some form, it is our neighbors who are most vulnerable who have been impacted the greatest. Low-income women who do not have the privilege of choosing where they live or work are among the most susceptible of populations.  Many of these same women who do not have access to safe water distribution systems are forced to utilize tap water to cook with, bathe in, and drink from without knowing whether it is truly safe for them or their children. Some families are struggling to afford rent and utilities because of the added costs of purchasing bottled water to drink, cook, and bathe with at a time when many of them saw decreased income because businesses, schools and restaurants were closed for nearly two weeks.

Q:  If someone has never been to Charleston or visited the Elk River, how would you describe the role the river plays in the community? 

A: The Elk River is the main drinking water supply for more than 300,000 people across nine counties.  It serves as a recreational river for many people who boat and fish. The site of the Freedom Industries spill is located on the Elk River, less than 5 miles from the convergence of the Kanawha River, a major source of recreation for the community even though, according to a the Environment America Research & Policy Center’s 2012 report, the Kanawha River has more developmental and reproductive toxins dumped into it than any other waterway in the United States.  The city of Charleston recently spent significant amounts of money renovating the riverfront area to make it the home of many music and cultural festivals throughout the summer months.  People walk, bike, run along the river in the Capitol city.

Q: What is the current status of the alleged safety of the water and how are people dealing with this disruption in their daily lives?

A: People living in the spill zone have received confusing messages about the safety of the water. Originally, people were told that after the process of “flushing,” the water was safe to drink and use; however, after this statement, CDC [Center for Disease Control] then issued another conflicting statement saying that pregnant women should not drink the water. Many women had already consumed the water.  Over a month after the spill, pregnant women are still being told the water is not safe for them to consumer.  CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances Control told Kentucky pregnant women that the water was safe if MCHM was below 50 parts per billion – no such information was given to WV women.  What is the timeline and criteria for CDC lifting this ban?   What about babies and young children? Women of child-bearing age?  Is the water really safe for any of us?

Public officials have not done an effective job in assuaging fears about the safety.  Smells from the water closed a Charleston elementary school as late as yesterday, 40 days into the crisis.  The pediatrician of a WV FREE staffer’s child has this posted throughout his practice:

photo credit: WV FREE staff
photo credit: WV FREE staff

The head of our County Health Department has publically state that he is not drinking the water, as has our US Senator.  Fears about water safety are constantly discussed among West Virginians on all forms of social media.

Q: What do you think most people don’t realize or know about the spill’s impact, from a local perspective? How does this expose the strengths and the vulnerability of this region?

A: This spill exposes the vulnerabilities of drinking water supplies across the country and illustrates the lack of scientific information about chemicals that are manufactured, stored, transported, applied and disposed in communities.  MCHM is used in the processing of coal for energy consumption and is disposed of in coalfield communities.  This incident highlights water contamination issues that people in the coalfields of Appalachia have been enduring for a number of years and shines a light on one of the possible sources of contamination.

No toxicological studies are currently in the works, which means that we may never know what the long-term health effects of exposure to this chemical will be.  The spill has tainted the image of not only Kanawha Valley and surrounding counties, but of our entire state.  It has severely impacted our tourist industry and many young families that are able to move are considering doing so, out of fear of health repercussions for their children.

Q: I appreciated the truth in this sentence from Catrina Otonoga’s post at Abortion Gang, The River Runs Yellow: The Elk River Spill The Intersection of Environmental and Reproductive Justice: “Coal has left an indelible mark on the land and has deeply effected the choices people can and do make when choosing whether to parent and how to raise their children.”  Please expand on how WV FREE is organizing community members to see themselves as having choices around issues of reproductive health and justice in context of this spill, corporate power, and state budget cuts?

A: WV FREE is organizing a number of sessions to hear the wants and needs of communities, and in particular, women, impacted by the spill to build grassroots power, and ultimately that effect change.  It is clear that the lack of information on chemicals such as MCHM does not support the ability to make sound judgments around reproductive health.  As a result, WV FREE is organizing educational forums that connect environmental and reproductive justice; particularly around community-right-to-know laws, which give communities a right-to-know what potential harms exist in their community. National community right-to-know laws were put in place after a chemical leak in the Kanawha Valley in 1985 following the gas leak disaster in Bhopal, India that killed thousands of people instantly.

WV FREE is working in collaboration with organizations from around the state, organizing more conversations and calls to action around reproductive and environmental justice issues.

Q: What are the connections that are motivating people to continue to ask questions and demand more accountability?

A: People are frustrated and confused by the mixed messages they are receiving from government officials and the utter disregard of their health concerns by WV American Water. Continued illnesses and school closings due to exposure have prompted demands for accountability. There is a lack of scientific data regarding health exposure that is driving public pressure.

People continue to share their concerns with friends and co-workers, pouring out their frustrations on Facebook and other social media sites. Below is a post from a mom in Charleston:


Marilyn Wrenn

11 hours ago
Since I am still smelling MCHM after all this time, I called WV American Water just now and had a FASCINATING conversation with one of their customer service reps. I told her I could smell MCHM in my water this evening. She asked me if I had flushed. “Yes,” I told her. “We’ve flushed many times. We are expert flushers.” Then she asked if we flushed from the lowest point in our house. “From like a basement,” she said, as if I might not know what “lowest point” meant. 

Huh? Since when were we to flush from the lowest point in our homes?

I explained that this “low-point flushing” was never described to us as part of the flushing protocol. “Yes it was,” she said. “It’s on the brochure you all got.” We pulled it up off the website and I suggested we read it together. I pointed out that no where did the information direct us to flush from the lowest point in our homes (not that I really thought this would matter after all this time). 

”It’s in the picture,” she said as if talking to a four-year old. “See that green line? That means you flush from the lowest point.” I looked at it and the color-coded legend thinking I might have missed something.


”The only thing that green line indicates is that houses have drains,” I said, leaving the “you moron” part unspoken. “How do you get ‘flush from the lowest point’ from looking at a picture of a drain?” 

She said that the “flush from the lowest part of your house” was something they’ve been told to tell us when we call, and that I might want to try it to see if the smell goes away. “There was also a water line break in your area so your water might be cloudy. I’ll put in a service order for you.” 

”Is there anything else I can help you with, Ms. Warren?” 

Sensing her abject lack of interest in our water troubles I informed her that I was not alone in my complaint, and that yet another school had to send kids home today because of evidence of MCHM. “You all can drink the water,” she said. “It’s fine.” I reminded her that the WVAmWater website still said pregnant women might want to avoid it, and local doctors were advising not to drink it. 

She was becoming defensive.

”Well, you know, we couldn’t pump water after the spill due to the electrical outage, so I don’t know how it could be getting in your water,” she said. 

Electrical outage? Really?! 

”Yes,” she said. “The two or three weeks without power kept the pump stations down. Two still don’t have power.” I told her I was unaware of this power outage issue. “Well, it’s been all in the news,” she said, “and it’s on our website. If you want details about it, you can call the power company.” 

”Is there anything else I can help you with, Ms. Warren?”

 Instead of ending our call, I suggested that she direct me to the online source detailing this power-outage. “It’s here in the Feb 10 press release about the testimony,” she said. So we read it together (this was becoming a thing with us) and when we were done, I asked her if she was surprised that it didn’t mention a 2-3 week power outage at the pump station. “That’s what we’ve been told, ma’am.” 

”I can put in a service call and someone will be contacting you shortly. Is there anything else can I help you with tonight, Ms. Warren?” 

Why yes, yes there is. 

”You can try to understand the extent of our frustrations as customers of West Virginia American Water. We don’t believe our WATER is safe. It is still making people sick and no one knows the long term consequences of ingesting MCHM, PPH, and/or all of the compounds it formed when mixing with all the other crap that’s in our water. 

Secondly, you can at least have your facts straight and understand that we might know slightly more about this than you, having lived it for over a month. Realize this, read your own materials, and listen to what we say. 

Finally, advocate for us and INSIST that people in your organization figure out how to get the freakin’ MCHM out of our water supply, and help everyone get access to clean water in the meantime!! Do those things, and by the way… 

The name’s WRENN!!!!” 

I don’t know where this leaves us, but I go to sleep tonight knowing that at least ONE American Water employee is slightly better educated about our situation. 

One down, several thousand to go…


Q: Please share any last thoughts you’d like to leave. How can those of us who don’t live in West Virginia support WV FREE’s organizing efforts?

A: WV FREE is a membership-based organization and focuses on building power in West Virginia; however, any and all support from friends outside of our Mountain State is welcome and necessary. Individuals who would like to support WV FREE’s work can become members through a donation of $25 or more, and stay up to date on issues via our email listserv. Many of WV FREE’s supporters communicate with us via our online and social media networks–;;

By Ginger Hintz, blog editor

Featured Image credited to Margaret Chapman Pomponio from the must read post by Vanessa Daniel, Is Philanthropy Missing a Golden Opportunity in West Virginia? 

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