OT: West Virginia water situation (day 6 and counting)

Baroclinicity's picture
January 15, 2014 at 9:46a
34 Comments

So, I'm going on day 6 without usable tap water.

This situation is disgusting, and I'm not even talking about the water itself.  The news reports, for those who have been following, are true, and it does indeed have a licorice smell to it.  And while it's not like it's benzene in the water, touching it will cause skin irritation and nausea/diarrhea if ingested.

The good:  The response of the state emergency management and FEMA has been good in terms of getting water here.  The lines were long at first, but there are multiple places you can go to for cases/jugs of water, and filling stations for those with livestock/horses and you're in and out in 2 minutes or less.  Neighboring states have been great about shipping water in.

The bad:  Freedom Industries, of course.  West Virginia American Water cannot be left out of this.  DEP?  Don't know.

The Daily Show and Colbert Report are usually spot on with their humor.  Those tanks hadn't been inspected since the early 90s.  In an area that is full of chemical plants (this area is known as the "Chemical Valley", how do you not keep tabs on all structures/operations?  I'm looking at you, DEP.  Aren't you responsible for enforcing these regulations?  How may other companies have slipped through the cracks? 

The chemical that leaked into the water was a relative unknown.  When they identified the substance, there was very little info anywhere other than the MSDS on what it was and how to deal with it.  From what I understand, Dow Chemical, another company in the area, was hired to do testing on it to figure out standard attributes such as the solubility in water, half life, etc.  This is for WVAW:  How do you not have your fingers on the pulse of every chemical whether it's in storage or in an active chemical plant that is upstream of your intakes on the Elk River, let alone 1 mile upstream??  And having these buildings and companies on the water is common here.  First of all, most of these companies need the water access for cooling/dilution processes (I don't know, just guessing... maybe a chemist can chime in), but this terrain is so rugged that the only places you can build around here is on the narrow flood plains in the valleys.  Not ideal to start.

I'm not a native West Virginian, but I have lived here for 7 years now.  I have a love-hate view of the area, as I mentioned in a Skully a couple days ago.  Some really great people, great hiking, the cost of living isn't too bad, and it's a short drive to Ohio Stadium.  On the down side, some of the other people are irrational, you can't get out of your car in a parking lot or a gas pump without stepping on someone's dip plug or spit splatter, the good old boy mentality of the coal industry will ultimately doom this state, and it's a hotbed for potential disasters, be it industrial, weather related (flooding, especially), or anything else it seems.

Fortunately, there are some neighborhoods in the populated area that are on a different water supply.  About 25% of the people I work with in an office of 27 people are in this area, so the rest of us take turns rotating through their houses for an every-other-day shower and things like that.  The small ticket items have been fine; drinking water, water to cook with, brushing teeth, etc.  Big tickets items are a lost cause, like laundry, dishes, and of course, showers.  So in reality, for my wife and I, it's just a really big inconvenience.  I'm tired of pouring cold water over my head in the morning to get the bed head under control (I buzz my head, but you even get sleep divots with that).  I like my shower first thing in the morning to wake up.  Our kitchen sink is a mess.  At least you can flush toilets.

The reason for this post is this:  You gotta be ready, because who knows what is being properly monitored/inspected/cared for around you?  I tend to believe that major problems like this are a result of a cascade of failures, and not just one per se.  When this happened, we had about a half gallon of water in a Brita pitcher.  There was a horrific run in the stores on water right after the announcement, and we were in the gym when it all went down, so we had no shot at anything.  From friend's accounts, the behavior in the stores during that hour or two was appalling and savage-like.  Once people calmed down, people have been very giving, and I've had lots of offers for help.  But between this problem, which will likely be a problem for a week or two after they declare the water safe for everyone, the derecho 2 summers ago that knocked out my (everyone's) power for a week in 90-100 degree heat promoting a run on gasoline similar to that of the water run I mentioned above, to superstorm Sandy that also knocked out my power for multiple days in cold weather, it's clear that you need to have a plan.  This could effect Columbus just as easily as it did here.  Could you imagine the Columbus water supply going down?  That's a lot of people in a worse situation than we are currently in.

I'm not saying we need to go into "Doomsday Prepper" mode, nor am I trying to be an alarmist.  Just sharing my experiences in what has been a difficult couple of years.

Comments

sox33osu's picture

All of my best to you and your family, Baro. I've been trying to keep up on this a bit myself, and it's alarming that the regulations and standards in the chemical industry have been so demonstrably overlooked as the industry overall grows. With new chemical lines and production come new potential hazards, and I'm familiar with the situation in WV as one of my colleagues sells chemicals into the enormous energy sector there. I'm going to be traveling with one of my younger colleagues in WV next week, as well, as he is still training so I'm going to get some first hand accounts for sure.
It's really relieving to know it's become much easier to get usable water for consumption. It's one of those things you take for granted really, I suppose.

Baroclinicity's picture

Sox- feel free to email me through here if you want a "real" update on the water if you're going to be in the Charleston area.  If you're here for a day or two, I'll let you know if it's worth it to shower, or whether it would be better to wait until you return home even though the situation might be "cleared".  Same with eating out, etc.  Some restaurants have opened in the clear zones.  I'm not eating there yet.

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

doodah_man's picture

A movie from the past depicted a US Cavalry surgeon who admonished a commander for putting his latrine upstream from where they got their water. His comment was [paraphrased], "hey, it's all a matter of how you like your coffee". Charleston, WV allowed a chemical plant to build next to the river, upstream from their water source. Guess common sense  is not too common there. Best of luck guy. Hope that you are on the backside of the problem now.
Cincinnati...you are next

Jim "DooDah" Day
It is hard to play dirty against a man who picks you up.

IBLEEDSCARLETANDGRAY's picture

A friend of mine who lives in Charleston with her husband and 2 kids posted on Facebook how she had to melt ice from the local convenient store in order to cook and have drinking water. All the local stores can't keep bottled water on the shelves long enough for everyone to buy it either. They drove to a family member's house in Ohio 2 hours away just to be able to take a bath. She has a 3 year old and a 1-year old.
She also said that all her neighbors, even the ones she did not know well, have all been offering to help each other out with what water they do have, especially for anyone with small children or infants. That kind of support is what makes this country great. Despite what the media says people do help each other. I hope this gets resolved soon.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

Baroclinicity's picture

The water "shortage" really only lasted about 36 hours.  By Saturday, all grocery stores/Wal Marts/drug stores had lots of bottled water, and quite frankly it's not selling because FEMA/state EM is giving it out for free.  But yeah, the first 24-36 hours, if you didn't have water, it was hard to get.  No issues beyond Friday night, unless you didn't have transportation to get it, in which case I bet police would have delivered it. 

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

IBLEEDSCARLETANDGRAY's picture

I also think she lives farther out in the country and that might have had something to do with it. She did mention the police/sheriff were delivering water to people.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

Oyster's picture

What about people with their own wells?  Are they affected by this also?  Just curious because I have a well.

Baroclinicity's picture

I would say no, unless the containment got into the ground water and you were close enough that your well was pulling from that part of the water table.

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

avail31678's picture

Come home to River, Baro...where the Lake Erie water is only mildly polluted.

Baroclinicity's picture

Amen.

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

FitzBuck's picture

And they brought in a chef to make Asian carp dish ideas.  

Fitzbuck | Toledo - Ohio's right armpit | "A troll by any other name is still a troll".

CptBuckeye24's picture

I wish you, your family and neighbors nothing but the best. But at least FEMA and other EMAs have had a quick response and are giving out water. But the whole situation is wrong and ridiculous.

sharks's picture

The Daily Show segment was unbelievable. Hope you get back to normal soon.

The postgame show is brought to you by... Christ, I can't find it. The hell with it...

Buckeyejason's picture

Hang tough out there Baro! Praying for you guys.

BUCKEYES BABY!

1MechEng's picture

Maybe you should come visit Toledo?!

Scarlet_Lutefisk's picture

My mother's side of the family is from Clendenin & Big Chimney so there were quite a number affected by the spill. I have an 400 gallon M-149 trailer so I filled it up and drove it down to a cousin's house on Friday night.
Mountaineers are a fiery breed, but this is about the most pissed off I've ever seen them.

FitzBuck's picture

You are so right about not knowing what got into the water.  They have records of every chemical on site and the quantities.  It's laughable they can't pinpoint the chemical.  In the meantime as a sign of peaceful protest blast DMB "don't drink the water"

Fitzbuck | Toledo - Ohio's right armpit | "A troll by any other name is still a troll".

Denny's picture

I admittedly haven't followed this closely, but I'm a chemist (busy with paternity leave). Aliphatic alcohols like what was spilled aren't a whole lot of fun -- they're not very water-soluble, but are soluble enough to mix slightly and make water junky (hence 'foaming agent'). There are all sorts of exemptions to regulations for chemical handling, as congresspeople of all types have carved out federal blind spots for their constituent industries, and this happened to fall under such an umbrella.
The bad news is the shit isn't going to go away quickly; until the affected water is sequestered/cleaned, it's just going to float around on top of the water. The worse news is I can't imagine West Virginia doing anything to remedy the potential for future incidents -- they haven't done much about mountaintops caving in due to coal mining, so I'm not optimistic about a proactive response to this; as you said, the state will ride with coal mining to the bitter end.
Hope things improve for you, and soon.

Taquitos.

Oyster's picture

Certainly it will dissipate and continue to flow down river, right?  Somewhat a self correcting situation as it gets spread over a larger area as time goes on?  Not a good solution for people down river, but it would be more diluted as every day passes, correct?

Denny's picture

Yeah, it'll get diluted to an extent. But it's not very miscible with water, so it'll tend aggregate with itself (and foam up if the water/aliphatic mixture is agitated a lot). Whether that separate layer or foam adheres to itself or dilutes is dependent on the specific emulsion formed (if one is formed), which I'm not familiar enough to make a guess about.
The problem could be self-correcting to a degree, sure. But safe levels of dilution are compound-specific, and I don't know what the safe limits are for exposure for methylcyclohexyl methanol (or the river flow rate, or lots of the other variables involved). Generally, yes, the compound will be diluted to safe levels on its own. But that could take a few days or a few months, depending on all sorts of things. I know this is a rather vague answer, but it's what I've got.

Taquitos.

Baroclinicity's picture

Oh man, I could pick your brain for hours.
What is troubling is that here at work, close to the first lines in the water distribution system from the contaminated intakes, the water still has the odor (although deemed "safe").  One would think that with everyone flushing, these lines would be clear right now, so that says that the agent is still leaking into the water from the contaminated bank of the river, or it is adhering to the linings of the pipes the water flows through. 
I'm most concerned about the latter.  Does the chemical bond to copper/PVC plastic etc?

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Oyster's picture

I feel for you.  As I stated above, we have a well.  When the electric goes out, we have no water, unlike folks who live in the city.  I know what it's like to not be able to turn on the faucet and such, although not for this long.  We did buy a generator a couple of years ago so it shouldn't be an issue in the future.  Of course there has been no power outages since we bought it, Murphys Law .

Baroclinicity's picture

The trust level with everything around us is rapidly approaching zero, you know?

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Oyster's picture

Maybe those Preppers are on to something?

Denny's picture

I'd guess that the compound in particular here (methylcyclohexyl methanol) would adhere more to the PVC than to copper pipes (like associating with like (fat/plastic) would likely be a stronger interaction here than the coordination of the alcohol to the copper, which would be competing with water for the coordination). That's just a guess, and the coarseness and the pipe diameter probably also will play a role, along with  agitation and flow.
Re: the smell—nasal detection levels and safe concentrations in water don't always match up. Think sulfurous compounds and well water – well water sometimes smells off, but is safe to drink. 
Also, this compound is less dense than water, so flushing won't always remove all of it; it'll be the last thing to leave the sink/toilet because it's floating on top. 
I don't blame skepticism in the immediate aftermath of this event – PR bullshit from the companies involved and governmental responses often err on the side of hedging to not induce panic (or admit liability). But unless you can titrate the water to determine concentrations of the spill, I wouldn't worry too much about smelling it unless it causes physical symptoms (headache, nausea, etc).

Taquitos.

Baroclinicity's picture

Denny, I can't tell you how much I appreciate the info you're giving here.  It is far and away above anything else I have heard or read, and that is the main frustration around here.  And I completely understand when you are talking about the density aspect.  

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Oyster's picture

I will pile in with our friend who is actually going through this right now.  As for me, as a guy with a well, what you have provided is very good info.
As for Baro, good luck dude.

bigbadbuck's picture

The only real thing I know as I'm not scientifically inclined is that PVC is covered with a clear coating which i would think nothing would be able to adhere to it. Sounds to me that there is still a leak somewhere up the line

Gentlemen, you can't fight in here its a war room

another-navy-buckeye's picture

Couldn't help but notice that the company responsible for this whole fiasco just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  Appropriate considering the situation, though I imagine this won't keep the feds off their back anyway.  Hope this mess clears up soon...

DenverBuckeye

Baroclinicity's picture

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

TraptnMI's picture

Corps. Sacrificing us all for a Buck! Next time you hear,"we need deregulation," tell those Polluters we need massive increases of regulations. Nothing should be able to threaten our sacred ground water!

" It's real good whatcha done Anthony, real good ! "

-1 HS
cinserious's picture

The almighty dollar trumps all! If a profit can be made AFTER hefty fines and penalties are paid, do it. After all, we have to appease our shareholders. General public safety be damned.

Life's daily struggle is choosing between saying F--ck-it, or soldiering on with your responsibilities.  

BME_Buckeye's picture

Any updates on what's going on now since the lawsuits and the company filed for bankrupcy?

Look closely, because the closer you think you are, the less you will actually see.

 

Baroclinicity's picture

Freedom Industries was quick to file Chapter 11.  But, the next day, Clifford Forrest created a new LLC, from what I hear is a way to hide assets so that they can't be touched by lawsuits (this is all fuzzy to me how that works).  There are already a lot of class action suits out there.  I'd have to guess there will be civil suits also?  Maybe someone reading this that knows about law can chime in.
We still have not used the water at my house. The smell from the chemical is still prevalent in basically all locations.  Most people have flushed their lines, but again, there technically hasn't been much point to this.  There have been no tests below the fake threshold of 1PPM but now the water company won't post the test results anymore which they are still conducting.  I want to wait until the results come in at 10PPBillion.  That's where arsenic lies, and I figure it can't be worse than that.
this is what happens when the good old boy network runs the show and protects business before people.   The old saying here is "Coal keeps the lights on!"  Now you can add " But turns the water off."

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.