Tap Water Still Unsafe To Drink In Charleston, W.Va. There are some 300,000 people still waiting to be able to use their tap water. A chemical spill into the Elk River last week has officials warning everyone not to touch, drink, or wash with the water. There are questions whether regulation was too lax on the company that stored the chemical.

Tap Water Still Unsafe To Drink In Charleston, W.Va.

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/262033713/262033714" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. In and around Charleston, West Virginia there are some 300,000 people who are still waiting to be able to use their tap water. The water was ruled too dangerous for anything other than flushing down the toilet after a chemical leaked into the system Thursday.

Hundreds of businesses closed and many schools remain closed today. And there are questions now about whether regulation was too lax on the company that stored this chemical which is used in processing coal. It reportedly had not been inspected since the early 1990s. We're joined on the line by Ashton Marra, who has been covering this story for West Virginia Public Radio. Ashton, good morning.

ASHTON MARA, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So do we know when people are going to have their water back?

MARA: You know, we don't know specifically, but we have some sort of idea that things are moving in the right direction. We're hoping that maybe just a few more days we'll be experiencing this.

GREENE: What exactly needs to happen before officials actually give a green light and tell people they can start using their water again?

MARA: So basically the National Guard and a team of chemists had to come in and set up a methodology for testing the water. So now we're in the process of testing within the water treatment facility itself where the water is taken in from the river and throughout the entire distribution system to make sure that level is at an approved threshold before they can begin then flushing all of the water through all of the pipelines. And it's a nine county area, so that's a long process as well.

GREENE: OK. So they have to do this testing and once they decide it's safe, they'll use water to actually flush out the system and tell people that it's a go. They can start showering and doing laundry again.

MARA: Yes. What we do know about the chemical is that it's highly water soluble. So just flushing it out with water through the system, they say, is going to be able to take care of the problem.

GREENE: And this chemical, it's used in coal processing, as we said. We know that it can be dangerous because there have been people hospitalized during this whole process.

MARA: There have been people hospitalized, but that number has been very low. Six people at this point have been admitted to the hospital. The symptoms are nausea, vomiting, trouble breathing. We're also in flu season and they're similar symptoms so our State Department of Health and Human Resources secretary says she isn't prepared to say that those are because of chemical exposure, but there will be an intense review of all of the charts of these people who have been admitted into hospitals.

GREENE: Can you tell me what it's been like for people living? I mean it's, I can imagine a lot of frozen dinners, a lot of going without showers. What's life been like?

MARA: I think frustration is the easiest word to use in this case. It's an inconvenience, honestly. You obviously can't cook, you can't clean, you can't bathe in any of that running water that you typically use. So first the number one priority was obviously finding a secondary source of water for everyone. But then on top of that, businesses are still open so people are still having to go to work.

So to have clean clothes, to be able to take a shower, some people are having to drive maybe even as much as 40 minutes to find another place to do these things where the water is still running and they're still able to use it.

GREENE: A big added inconvenience when you have your daily routine trying just to get to work on time. You know, Ashton, let me just ask you about the coal industry. I mean it's so important to West Virginia's economy and to so many livelihoods in the state. But there are questions now about whether this is a sign that the industry needs to be better regulated.

MARA: You know, I think that when you think of West Virginia, you think of coal. And a lot of people in the state are proud of that, but this storage facility itself is not owned or maintained by a coal company. This chemical itself is used in a process to clean the coal. So the site is not currently regulated by the state or federal government. It's not monitored by our State Department of Environmental Protection because it's simply a storage facility.

Nothing is being manufactured. So the governor is talking about introducing some type of legislation to regulate these sites that we've obviously been missing in the past.

GREENE: All right. That's Ashton Mara from West Virginia Public Radio. She's been covering the story and also, like many people in West Virginia, living without water. So we hope you get the water back soon, Ashton. Thanks for talking to us.

MARA: Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.