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3:35 pm
Thu February 13, 2014

In West Virginia, Polluted Water Squeezes Wallets And Patience

Originally published on Thu February 13, 2014 6:58 pm

Nate May's Prius is loaded down with water. The back is filled with boxes, each holding three one-gallon jugs that he just bought at Walmart. He and other volunteers are driving around Charleston, W.V., dropping off the jugs to people who have contacted his ad hoc group, the West Virginia Clean Water Hub. It's paid for with donations.

"There are a lot of people this has put in a difficult bind. Some of them can't get out, some of them are elderly, some of them — it's just too much of a financial burden," May says. "We just take them at their word if they say they need water."

More than a month has passed since a chemical leak polluted Charleston's water supply, and life is anything but normal for the 300,000 or so people in the area. Many are still relying on bottled water to drink and others have gone to lengths to avoid using the water at all. They're feeling an economic pinch and are upset with government officials.

One of May's first stops this morning is the second floor apartment of Nakeysha Bennett, whose baby is 3-week-old Eli.

"I was actually in the middle of eating dinner and drinking water when we turned on the news and they were like, 'Don't drink the water,'" Bennett says. "I was pregnant and so I started freaking out."

Her doctors told her to drink bottled water, so she uses bottled water for his formula. "That's kind of hard to do because we went through cases and cases and cases of water," she says.

Bennett says she has no idea how long she'll have to fix Eli's formula and bathe him with bottled water. And she's pretty fed up.

"I feel like there are a lot of people who aren't doing their jobs or something," she says. "It is so hard. I can't live like this with bottle water. It drives me crazy that I can't just use regular water out of my sink."

Maya Nye of People Concerned About Chemical Safety says this leak might have an impact in a way that previous accidents in more isolated areas of West Virginia have not. Charleston is the state's population center, the center of government. And there are lawyers and lobbyists and people who know how to raise their voices.

"I do believe it's a tipping point," Nye says. "I mean, 300,000 people, you hit them on sort of a basic human survival level ... it's hard not to respond.

West Virginia's members of Congress have called for laws to make sure that tanks like the one that leaked, owned by Freedom Industries, and for more oversight of the state's many other chemical facilities. But University of Charleston professor Brad Deel isn't optimistic about changing the state's lax regulation of the coal and chemical industry.

"What I predict will happen is that people will make a lot of noise. There will be some minor, minor regulations passed," Deel says. "To the extent that anything major is proposed, people will say, 'Let's not be too hasty, let's not make any rash changes.' Industry will open its wallets and its lobbying organizations to the politicians and very little will happen."

Meanwhile, in St. Albans, just outside Charleston's water system, Joanne Kirby and her three lively kids are having a pizza picnic. Kirby lives in Charleston, where she and three other families have rented a small apartment in St. Albans so they could bathe the kids and wash their clothes in clean water.

The families keep track of whose turn it is to use the place on a Google calendar. Kirby, a lawyer, says their family doesn't use the water at home at all.

"One day my daughter was brushing her teeth, and she turned on the faucet by mistake and wet her toothbrush and then just dropped it — and then burst into tears," she says. "You know, that's not a great feeling as a parent. You're doing your best to keep a routine and keep calm, but the kids pick up on the tension. They're aware."

Richard Katz is another lawyer whose family shares the unfurnished apartment. "It's worked out great so far," he says. "Unfortunately it looks like we're going to have to have the place for another month at least."

Katz and the other families know they are fortunate to have the means to escape Charleston's water. But Katz says unless it's resolved soon, the water crisis may make some escape the area for good.

"If there is no meaningful change there will be a brain drain here," he says. "Not only will people leave, but attracting young people and talent to the area will be extremely difficult."

Before the families leave the apartment, they turn on the faucet and fill some jugs to take home.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Life is still anything but normal for some 300,000 people around Charleston, West Virginia. It's been more than a month since a leak from chemical storage tanks polluted the water supply. And many people are still relying on bottled water to drink. Others have gone to great lengths to avoid using the water at all. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, they're feeling an economic pinch, too, and they're upset about it.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Nate May's Prius is loaded down with water. The back is filled with boxes, each holding three one-gallon jugs that he's just bought at Wal-Mart. He and other volunteers are driving around Charleston, dropping off jugs to people who have contacted his group, the West Virginia Clean Water Hub. It's a citizen effort operating on donations.

NATE MAY: There are a lot of people who this has put in a difficult bind. So, yeah, so some of them can't get out, some of them are elderly, some of them it's just too much of a financial burden.

NAYLOR: One of his first stops this morning, the second floor apartment of Nakeysha Bennett.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

MAY: Nakeysha. I'm here to deliver some water. I'm with the Clean Water Hub. Your dad told me about you.

NAKEYSHA BENNETT: Sorry, I was feeding my baby.

MAY: No problem.

NAYLOR: Nakeysha's baby is 3-week-old Eli.

BENNETT: I actually was, like, in the middle of, like, eating dinner and drinking water, yeah. And I was pregnant, so I started freaking out.

NAYLOR: What did the doctors tell you?

BENNETT: They just told me to drink the bottled water and stuff.

NAYLOR: And so now with his formula, you mix it with bottled water?

BENNETT: Yeah, and that's kind of hard to do because we went through cases and cases and cases of water.

NAYLOR: Nakeysha says she has no idea how long she'll have to go on fixing Eli's formula and bathing him with bottled water. And she's pretty fed up.

BENNETT: I just feel like there, like, there a lot of people who, like, aren't doing their jobs or something. I mean, it's hard. I cannot live like this with the bottled water. It drives me crazy that I can't just use regular water out of my sink.

NAYLOR: Charleston is the state's population center, the center of its government. And there are lawyers and lobbyists and other people here who know how to make themselves heard. Maya Nye, who is president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, says maybe this leak will have an impact in a way that previous accidents in more isolated places in West Virginia have not.

MAYA NYE: I do believe it's a tipping point, yeah. I mean, 300,000 people, you hit them on sort of a basic human survival level and, I mean, this has been ongoing for a month now, you know, and I'm still not drinking the water, using it, and a lot of people I know still aren't.

NAYLOR: West Virginia's members of Congress have called for laws to ensure testing of storage tanks like the one owned by Freedom Industries that leaked and for more oversight of West Virginia's many other chemical facilities. But University of Charleston professor Brad Deel isn't optimistic that big changes are coming in the state's light-handed regulation of the coal and chemical industry.

BRAD DEEL: What I predict will happen is that people are gonna make a lot of noise. There will be some minor, minor regulations passed. To the extent anything major is proposed, people will say, well, let's not be too hasty, let's not make any rash changes. Industry will open its wallets and its lobbying organizations to the politicians and very little will happen.

NAYLOR: Meanwhile, in St. Albans, just outside Charleston's water system...

JOANNE KIRBY: We came here and did a little pizza picnic, and then now we're finishing with that.

NAYLOR: Sounds like a great adventure.

KIRBY: It has been. Can you guys say hello? These are my children (unintelligible), OK?

NAYLOR: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hi.

NAYLOR: Hi.

KIRBY: (Unintelligible)

NAYLOR: Joanne Kirby and her three lively kids are having a pizza picnic. Kirby lives in Charleston but, along with three other families, has rented a small apartment in St. Albans so they can bathe the kids and wash their clothes in clean water. The families use a Google calendar to keep track of who's turn it is to use the place. Kirby, a lawyer, says their family doesn't use the water in their home at all.

KIRBY: One day, my daughter was brushing her teeth and she turned on the faucet by mistake and wet her toothbrush and then just dropped it and burst into tears. And, you know, that's not a great feeling as a parent. You're doing the best to keep a routine and keep calm, yet the kids pick up on the tension. They're aware.

NAYLOR: Aurelia Kirby is 6.

AURELIA KIRBY: Mommy said even if other kids are using the water, we do not use the water.

NAYLOR: Richard Katz is another lawyer whose family shares the unfurnished apartment.

RICHARD KATZ: It works out really well. It's worked out great so far. Unfortunately, I'm afraid we might have to have the place for another month at least.

NAYLOR: Katz and the other families know they are fortunate to have the means to escape Charleston's water. Katz says unless it's resolved soon, the water crisis may make some people escape the area for good.

KATZ: I can tell you from talking with other professionals here, other highly skilled workers that we're watching. And if there is no meaningful change, there will be a brain drain here.

NAYLOR: As these families leave their shared apartment, the last thing they do is turn on the faucet and fill some jugs to take home.

Brian Naylor, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.