For A New View On The West Virginia Spill, Follow The Elk River

In early January, West Virginia's Elk River was contaminated by a chemical spill near Charleston. NPR's Noah Adams returns to the Elk nearly two months later to follow the course of the river.

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The news about the chemical spill always mentions the Elk River. And some people who live close to Elk, but far from Charleston, take that personally. The way they put it, that's our clean water that we send downstream. The river flows on a winding course of 172 miles, from the eastern West Virginia Mountains.

NPR's Noah Adams went to see where it all starts.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: The Elk River that goes to Charleston comes right out of the clouds in Pocahontas County. The mountains rise almost 5,000 feet. The water to create a river is from the cloud vapor - rain, snowfall and the cold springs in the high valleys.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

GIL WILLIS: If you look upstream from here and you look at that big rock there with the snow on it, you'll see where the water is bubbling out of the ground right there.

ADAMS: This is Gil Willis. He has a cross-country ski and mountain bike center at Slatyfork. It's on one of the headwater streams of the Elk. If he had his fly rod this morning, he'd be looking for Blue-Winged Olive mayfly hatch.

WILLIS: If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't think that you could catch fish on top of the water, you know, with a fly. But you will get hatches on these sunny, winter days.

ADAMS: This water is joined by two other forks. At the confluence, the Elk River begins. And you'd like to use the word pristine for a river just starting out, but there's long been concern about nearby Snowshoe Ski Resort. Snowshoe, on a winter weekend, becomes a village of 12,000 people. There's a sewer system, the treated output flows down to the Elk. This summer, Pocahontas County, working with Snowshoe, will start building a new, up-to-date sewer plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)

ADAMS: We take off for a day's drive in an SUV going alongside the Elk on a slushy gravel road and, seven miles downstream, we come to the first riverside farm. Today's chore is maple sugaring.

TOLLY PEULECHE: Sap is running. We tapped about 40 taps today, squirting right out of those holes.

(LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: Tolly Peuleche has been looking at 20 inches of snow but today she's made it out to the trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF A GOAT AND FOOTSTEPS)

ADAMS: She'll be selling maple syrup and in summertime fruits and vegetables to restaurants and at markets stands. Tolly Peuleche loves living on the Elk and treasures the spring water that she uses in her house.

PEULECHE: When I get in the shower, especially after this spill down in Charleston, I am so thankful I can open my eyes in the shower and it smells good. We have really, really nice water here.

ADAMS: Along the river road, you'll see lots of fishing camps; small trailers underneath a shed roof, an outhouse behind. We pass through the first town, Bergoo, with a church that's handy on the riverside for baptizing. And by lunchtime, I've reached the bigger town of Webster Springs.

In the hardware store parking lot I talk with Darrell Hall. He's from here. He left for Vietnam, a couple of careers - teaching, coal mining, carpentry. The Elk, that's a reason he came back.

DARRELL HALL: And I hope that they start cleaning up all these tanks and stuff.

ADAMS: Do you get on the Elk now at all?

HALL: Oh yeah, especially when the river's up in the summer. You can go up there and - I don't know if you've ever ridden a inner tube before.

ADAMS: Sure.

HALL: Well, yeah, you grew up like that. We run inner tubes on the Elk. We start up at Bergoo. Its 11 miles ride down here.

ADAMS: At the end of the day's driving, I stopped to talk with Angie Rosser. She's the director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition; bought a house right on the bank of the Elk, not far from Charleston. We had agreed to meet. She'd been gone and we both arrived at sunset and went out back to look at the water. She always takes note of the color, says it changes every day, every hour.

ANGIE ROSSER: This is what I call poopy brown.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSSER: It was from the thaw. And we had this stretch of when the snow was on the ground, I call it a real sharp emerald green. With the Moon and the snow and then that dark emerald green, it's just stunning.

ADAMS: About the chemical spill, she finds a positive side. Now there's more attention to what's going into the waters of West Virginia. She even faults her own Rivers Coalition for not having enough time, money, and people to have seen this one coming.

ROSSER: I was one of the many just completely shocked that there was this kind of chemical sitting in that volume, sitting that close to the Elk, that close to the drinking water intake.

ADAMS: Angie Rosser says she drove by those chemical tanks daily - they seemed old and rusty. No barge traffic there on the river. It just didn't seem like an active facility.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

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