In her home overlooking Charleston, W.Va., and the Kanawha River, Robin Peck, a local foreign language teacher, pops the question: “Do you want to smell the water?” She goes into the bathroom and turns both faucet knobs wide open. “Just wait for it,” she says. Sure enough, a pungent aroma fills the bathroom: black licorice with a hint of industrial chemicals, stifling and nauseating.

The odor is the result of a recent chemical contamination episode that has left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians without tap water for nearly a week, sparking a state of emergency that made international headlines. The contamination, from a leak at a chemical storage facility near a water treatment plant, has reopened discussion about the oft-problematic relationships between industry, citizens, and government in the Mountain State.

“Strange odors”
On the evening of January 9 West Virginia American Water (WVAW) contacted customers across nine counties, warning them to "only use water for flushing toilets or fighting fires. No information was given about the type or severity of the leak. "My husband and I were stunned," Peck says. "It was astounding how little information was available."

Early that morning citizens had reported "strange odors" to the authorities, who traced the source to a leak at a chemical storage facility in Charleston, near the Elk River. The facility, owned by Freedom Industries, is about 2.5 kilometers upstream from the WVAW treatment plant, which provides tap water to 300,000 residents in the capital and neighboring areas.

Thousands of liters of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, had leaked from a ruptured tank. First responders from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) found the liquid flowing from underneath an emergency containment wall. MCHM is used in coal production to clean dirt and minerals from raw coal chunks. Although the chemical was stored next to a critical water intake, state officials acknowledged that they had no specific emergency response drawn up for an MCHM spill. "How can they not know what to do when something like this happens?" Peck asks. "We've got the scientists, the resources, the expertise—I don't get it."

Warnings unheeded
The Freedom Industries site had not been inspected by environmental regulators since 1991. In fact, the site is legally exempt from DEP inspections, which apply to chemical production facilities but not storage sites. Freedom Industries is required to maintain a groundwater protection plan in the event of a spill, but the DEP says it has not yet received it.

Such factors have caused critics to point at West Virginia's problematic history with environmental regulations. In 2009 an investigation by the New York Times found that hundreds of workplaces in the state avoided paying state fines for violating pollution laws. Officials blamed “bureaucratic disorganization” and a “revolving door” of former state employees leaving to work for the polluting companies, often for more money. That same year, four environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene in West Virginia's “breakdown” of enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Many of the offenders are coal and chemical companies, the backbone of West Virginia's economy. The warnings grew even more specific—three years ago this month lawmakers ignored pleas by federal experts to establish new safety programs for chemical plants in the Kanawha Valley, where last week’s spill occurred.

On the same day that the chemical leak was discovered, U.S. House of Representatives lawmakers voted to limit the EPA's ability to regulate companies that dispose of toxic waste. Among the five Democrats to support the bill was West Virginia’s Rep. Nick Rahall.

Local Impacts
Many businesses, especially restaurants, were forced to temporarily close in response to the chemical leak. Most of the schools in the affected area were shuttered as well. Grocery stores quickly sold out of bottled water.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) delivered millions of water bottles to fire departments, hospitals and other emergency centers in the affected areas. At a water distribution site in the Pratt, W.Va., fire station, the chief of the volunteer fire department remained focused on getting through the crisis rather than assigning blame. “It’s not the water company’s fault,” Tim Walker, Jr., says. “This is one of those things that happens—it just hasn’t happened here before.” The tap water in Pratt lacks the telltale licorice smell, and some residents have used the water in spite of the ban. “I’ve been using the water to wash,” Walker says. “And my hands haven’t fallen off yet.” 

To some extent, MCHM’s toxicity remains a mystery. Water contaminated with the compound can cause skin and eye irritation, and ingesting the substance can provoke vomiting, but nuanced medical understanding is lacking. One 1990 study (pdf) by a chemical manufacturer used a crude technique to assess the chemical’s toxicity. Rats were fed the chemical until researchers determined the amount that would kill half of them. The study found a median lethal dose, or LD50, of 825 milligrams per kilogram of body weight in the rats.

To determine when the West Virginia water would be safe for human consumption, officials started from the 1990 study and applied variable factors such as potential for human sensitivity and dilution of the chemical in the water supply. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says one part per million is an acceptable amount, and testers reported readings as high as three ppm and low as 0.25 ppm. Once MCHM levels drop below one ppm, officials will lift the ban entirely—a plan that drew scathing criticism from some scientific quarters and confident agreement from others.

The lack of scientific literature on MCHM is not surprising. The agent was already in use when the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, was passed. TSCA gives the EPA regulatory power over chemical production, but all chemicals in use before the act (which number around 60,000) were grandfathered in and exempted from the EPA’s mandatory testing regime.

Moving on
By Tuesday afternoon, most of the zones previously affected by the water ban will have been given the all-clear. Residents have been compensated by WVAW to flush their plumbing by running their water, and soon life will return to normal. Lawsuits have been filed and more are to come. But in the face of unknown health effects, will affected residents ever think the same way about their water? “Me? Not for some time,” says Azita Misaghi, who lives in a Charleston suburb south of the Kanawha River. “I’ll be drinking bottled water for a while.”

Robin Peck, of Charleston, imagines everything will return to a state of normalcy eventually. “We were already exposed, we’re just trying to limit it at this point. I’m not going to lose sleep over it,” she says. “What I hope happens is that people learn from it, and we can establish precautions so nothing like this can happen again to anybody, anywhere.”