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Months Later, West Virginians Remain Wary Of Water That Smells


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

We're going to check in now on what's happening in West Virginia, where a chemical leak fouled the water supply in January. The chemical, used for scrubbing coal, flowed out of holding tanks into the Elk River, which is a crucial source of drinking water. More than 300,000 people in and around Charleston depend upon it. For weeks, they were warned not to drink their tap water. Now, even though health experts say the water is once again safe, many people there aren't so sure.

In a few minutes, NPR's Noah Adams will explore the picture up river. First, we'll hear from folks in Charleston and West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Dave Mistich.


DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: At Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston, a pump sucks water from five-gallon jugs into a coffee machine.


MISTICH: While some businesses have switched back to the tap, owner Keeley Steele plans to keep using bottled water in her three restaurants through April. All are located just a few blocks from the gold dome of the state capitol building. Steele says she's changed filters in her restaurants and home, but a smell keeps coming back.

KEELEY STEELE: We've changed those filters twice so far. And it seems that once we change them we're good. And then, anywhere from two or three weeks out, we start smelling it again. And we just started smelling it again this week.

MISTICH: The chemical smell is something like licorice. Steele says at the family's apartment above the restaurant, she and her husband take showers but they bathe their children in bottled water. She says her family hasn't experienced any adverse health effects. But others, like Fran Naylor of Clay County, say they have had a reaction.

FRAN NAYLOR: I washed my face in it on Saturday morning and I broke up in a horrible rash and my eyes swoll up. And I never have brushed my teeth or anything in it. But I sort of trusted what they told me, so I thought I could wash my face in it and it did give me a reaction.

MISTICH: Concerns like these remain, despite assurances from state and federal health officials that tests show the levels of the chemical MCHM are, quote, "safe." The lack of trust has resulted in the state paying for an independent home-testing project called WV TAP.

Dr. Andrew Whelton, of the University of South Alabama, is leading the team.

ANDREW WHELTON: We're sampling 10 homes - the drinking water from 10 homes throughout the counties affected to kind of get a gauge as to how variable the chemical levels are in people's taps. And to determine if it matters whether or not you sample hot water or cold water, or if it matters whether you sample from the kitchen sink or the bathroom tub.

MISTICH: As the WV TAP Project gets running, state lawmakers just passed a bill to regulate above-ground storage facilities. In a speech on the House floor, Delegate Mike Manypenny highlighted the frustrations of getting that bill done.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE MANYPENNY: It is time that we stand up and protect the citizens of this state, and not try to worry about nit-picking here and there for this special interest and that special interest.

MISTICH: So even as the West Virginia legislature grapples with balancing the state's coal industry roots and residents' calls for increased regulations, it's left people here wondering what should be done next.

For NPR News, I'm Dave Mistich in Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Mistich
Originally from Washington, W.Va., Dave Mistich joined NPR part-time as an associate producer for the Newcast unit in September 2019 — after nearly a decade of filing stories for the network as a Member station reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In July 2021, he also joined the Newsdesk as a part-time reporter.
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