“Don’t drink the water,” is usually a warning given to travelers when they plan a trip abroad to an undeveloped country. It’s not typically a phrase you hear in the United States, where we’re generally lucky enough to have clean water for drinking, cooking, showering, and all our other daily necessities. Unfortunately, for the last week, that hasn’t been the case for nearly 300,000 residents along the Elk River in West Virginia.

WV Water Ban, chemical spill

West Virginia’s water ban was partially lifted Monday, but it will be several days until all residents have clean water again.
Photo: zachary.locks via Flickr

Signs at the airport read “DO NOT USE WATER,” sinks in the State Capitol building are wrapped in plastic bags, and the only water that’s safe is bottled. This is all the cause of a chemical spill in the nearby Elk River, which leaked from an old tank and permeated the local water supply. The only activity residents can use the water for is flushing the toilet—everything else isn’t safe.

The spill, which happened on Thursday, reportedly made the water smell like black licorice—which was luckily enough to deter most residents from using it. Now residents are dealing with a water crisis. The old tank belongs to Freedom Industries and had about an inch-wide hole in the bottom of it. The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol or “crude MCMH” in shorthand, then “pooled in a containment area and then seeped through a porous cinder-block retaining wall, down the bank and into the river,” according to the Washington Post.

Though chemical levels have dropped since the discovery, it will take days to completely flush out the water supply and make it safe again. Freedom Industries says it had planned to upgrade its containment areas, but had not yet begun that process when the leak occurred. According to Freedom Industries, the chemical, though odorous, isn’t very toxic; but some are concerned about the lingering effects the leak will have on the community.

Mike Dorsey of the Department of Environmental Protection says that the chemical seeped into the soil surrounding the river bank and is likely still present in the protective layers around the containment area. “I’m guessing there will be some coming out of that bank for some time now,” he said.

For now, the area’s residents are still trying to figure out just how to cope with the spill. Some have left the area until the crisis is over and they can safely shower and eat again. Most businesses, restaurants, bars, schools, and daycare centers are closed. The ban was partially lifted on Monday, January 13th, after 5 days on complete lockdown. It will likely be several more days until the water supply is declared safe for all 300,000 residents.

“You just make do,” said one resident, Teresa “Tiki” Easter. “I was my hair in the sink. You take a rag, have an old military-style bath.” Luckily, there’s an end in sight now for the water crisis.