Morgan Paul’s evening last January 9 began as it usually does after a full day as director of Boone-Madison Public Library in West Virginia.
First, she changed out of her work clothes.
Then she made a little dinner. She doesn’t remember whether she used any tap water to do that.
After that, Paul clicked onto her computer to check out the latest local news on the website for Huntington-Charleston television station WSAZ.
That’s how Paul found out something was wrong with the drinking water in Boone County.
The news alerts started at 10:45 a.m.:
Emergency crews are investigating a strong smell in the Kanawha Valley.
C.W. Sigman, Kanawha County Emergency Manager … describes the smell as something similar to liquorice.
11:20 a.m.: A strong smell in the Kanawha Valley appears to be coming from a business in Charleston.
C.W. Sigman … tells WSAZ.com an odor is coming from a company called Freedom Industries on Barlow Drive.
The smell is from a product called crude, which is used in the coal prep process. Sigman describes the smell as something similar to liquorice.
2:15 p.m.: C.W. Sigman … tells WSAZ.com Freedom Industries on Barlow Drive had a tank leak.
…The leaked product is 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, which is used in the froth flotation process of coal washing and preparation. The product initially leaked into a containment area, the product then leaked from the containment area into the Elk river. …
Sigman says there is no way to get it out of the water. There is some concern the product could get into the water intake.
5:45 p.m.: West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin is warning residents of possible water contamination. … Residents in Boone, Lincoln, Kanawha, Jackson and Putnam counties should not use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing, or bathing. You can use the water for toilets and fire emergencies. Boiling water will not get rid of the chemical.
Paul got into her car and headed to the Dollar General.
“Do you have water in gallon jugs?” she asked the manager. “We’re going to need them.”
The manager took her back to the stockroom and thanked Paul for the heads-up. Mindful of the patrons at the four libraries in her charge, Paul bought 4 gallons of water. Another staffer bought a big tub of baby wipes and hand sanitizer.
“Our staff kept checking with the city for deliveries of water,” Paul said in an interview from her home in Madison, W.Va. “A lot of our patrons depend on us.”
It was the beginning of a long five days.
I wish I could say that by now, you’ve known for many days that more than 300,000 West Virginians were left with no water after thousands of gallons of a coalprocessing chemical oozed from a water treatment plant into the Elk River. However, unless you live in or near West Virginia or know somebody who does, there’s a chance you didn’t hear anything about this crisis until the following week.
As so many in West Virginia have pointed out, not one Sunday talk show of note even bothered to mention the catastrophe unfolding there. We could have quite a conversation about why that is, but we’d have to start by admitting to the prejudices so many of us harbor toward our fellow Americans who live in coal country.
I will spare you the Detroit Free Press staffer’s tweet about one of those vile stereotypes, but I celebrate the public outrage that sparked its deletion and her apology. What a surprise — to some, I guess — that social media are a force in West Virginia, too.
The company responsible for this chemical spill is Freedom Industries — an apt name, it turns out, because this part of the coal industry has been free of government regulation and inspection. Say that out loud, will you?
Slowly, in patches, the government has declared water safe to drink. In the past two days, Twitter has been awash with posts from West Virginia residents taking pictures of this supposedly clean water. Lots of bathtubs lined with sediment or filled with water that looks like urine. One post showed globs of a “gelled up” substance left behind after the water drained down her sink.
On Tuesday night, Cincinnati shut down two intake valves along the Ohio River to protect the city’s drinking water from the spill, which is headed toward Kentucky and Indiana.
That same evening, at 9:32 p.m., WCHS-TV posted a story about a man’s skin peeling off his hands after he used water declared just fine for his use.
Dr. Elizabeth Brown warned residents to be vigilant.
“We’re progressing to see more frank rashes and red eyes, people that are really having some GI discomfort, and it’s a little more serious right now,” she told the station. “So I’m certainly encouraging patients with these symptoms to have a good panel of blood work so we can rule out other things or so we can go back and later document the chemical — (which may) cause some problems with the kidneys or something else, and we need to know that.”
The doctor’s right. We do need to know that — and a whole lot more.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.