In The Wake Of Spill, West Virginians Still Don't Trust Their Tap

It's been more than three weeks since thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical contaminated the drinking water of approximately 300,000 West Virginia residents. Dave Mistich, of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, reports that even though government officials now say it's safe to drink the water, not everyone trusts that advice.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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It's been almost a month since a chemical leak tainted the drinking water for 300,000 people around Charleston, West Virginia. The lead federal agency investigating what happened is one most Americans have probably never heard of, the Chemical Safety Board. The board is independent but critics say it's understaffed, underfunded and takes too long to finish its investigations. In a few minutes, we'll hear more about that.

BLOCK: But first, we return to the state capital, Charleston. Though government and health experts have declared the water there safe, locals aren't so sure. Over the weekend, hundreds of people waited in long lines to get free bottled water. David Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting talked with some of them and sent this report.

DAVID MISTICH, BYLINE: Patti Lawson spent part of her weekend sitting in her car, inching along. She and many others had come to a water distribution center by an interstate overpass in downtown Charleston. She just doesn't trust anything about the water flowing from her tap.

PATTI LAWSON: You know, I don't feel the water is safe at all and that's based on absolutely nobody giving you any kind of information that it is. It still has a smell. It still is just a very scary situation.

MISTICH: Lawson wasn't alone. Sarah Holstein and her grandmother say that's why they're here. They're afraid, scared of the water in their home. And this despite assurances from state and federal health officials that the tap water is safe.

SARAH HOLSTEIN: We don't trust it at all.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, no trust.

MISTICH: Are you showering in it?

HOLSTEIN: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, not drinking it or nothing like that. And I have two little kids and, like, they go to school - well, my son, he goes to school, too, and I don't even trust the water there at the school.

MISTICH: Yeah.

HOLSTEIN: But, I mean, the state superintendent of the schools says that they're going to be using bottled water. So, I mean, I'm just kind of iffy, you know, so...

MISTICH: How long do you think you'll not drink the water?

HOLSTEIN: As long as it - I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A long time.

HOLSTEIN: A long time. A long time.

MISTICH: Cars rolled past here for hours. In assembly line fashion, they eased up to the front while National Guard members and Charleston city workers dropped bottled water into people's trunks. Rodney Kimble works for the city and was helping load up vehicles.

RODNEY KIMBLE: 90 percent of them has been kind of, you know, nice, but there's been a few that's been kind of rugged with us. But we just smile and say, God bless them and let them go.

MISTICH: What do mean being rugged? Are they wanting more?

KIMBLE: Well, they're wanting more and they're tired of the wait. And somebody in front of them got four, they only got two. But we try to explain to them, sir, they had two households in there.

MISTICH: Kimble said he understands that the chemical spill was an accident. But, still, even he remains cautious.

KIMBLE: Oh no, no, no. Myself, I'm affected by it. I take a shower in it, but I don't - we don't use it for drinking or cooking with.

MISTICH: Sure. And why is that exactly?

KIMBLE: Well, I'm just not confident that - well, my main thing is I can't handle the smell, that licorice smell, for me to stick that in my mouth.

MISTICH: The licorice smell is the telltale sign of the coal-cleaning chemical that leached out of storage tank and into the Elk River. Residents like Patti Lawson are trying their best to be positive since the January 9th spill, but she's frustrated.

LAWSON: No. I just wish that this would have never happened.

MISTICH: Kanwaha County officials says they'll continue to keep bulk water stations open this week, but winter weather has stalled plans to provide even more bottled water to the community. For NPR News, I'm Dave Mistich in Charleston, West Virginia.

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