Tuesday, January 14, 2014

That Chemical Leak

Photo by Tyler Evert. www.tylerevert.com
It's been in the news everywhere, and it's not pretty. Hundreds of gallons of a toxic and potentially harmful chemical leaked into the water supply of thousands of people in the Elk River and Kanawha Valley regions of West Virginia, and what people have been going through can only be described as a nightmare--one with recurring themes and odd twists. We were not affected personally, but so many of the people we know have been, and it has been the most difficult of times for them.

I was stunned to read that the storage tanks responsible for this leak had not been inspected in over 20 years, and apparently that standard procedure for tanks storing such chemicals. In 20 years my youngest son started kindergarten, graduated from college and is well into his career. My second youngest son graduated from high school and college, married and had two children and is nearing the age where he could, if he wanted, retire. I had a twenty-year library career in those 20 years! And every one of us had regular health checkups, but these tanks? No one thought that they could be a problem. Really. You can read the newspaper article and interview with two Department of Environmental Protection employees here.

I have to admit to a guilty relief that I no longer work in the valley, and that I am no longer responsible for the safety and security of most of the libraries affected by the leak. Had I still been working, I'd have been on the phone, in meetings, following news, reassuring staff, making decisions and then when the all-clear was given, right there with my maintenance guys flushing the systems and getting everything back to rights. I get chill bumps thinking about what my life would have been like the past week, and I feel so sorry for the staff who are now coping with this emergency.

I think too about the impact of this leak on the daily lives of so many people I know. People who live in the valley, who drive to work there, who depend on tips and part-time work to make ends meet. These people are now trying to clean this mess out of their homes, out of pipes and filters and appliances and who knows what else. We seldom think about just how many places water travels in our houses: yard sprinkler systems, refrigerator icemakers, toilets, hot water heaters, hot water heat, outdoor faucets...and all have to be flushed and filters changed.

That's the immediate impact, but the longer term one may be more worrisome. Even if health officials say it's okay to bathe and make coffee and drink the water again, is it really? Would you trust it? How long before people experience the soothing relaxation of a steamy hot shower (and forget about the woman who was hospitalized for taking a nice hot shower last week?).  How long before they stop sniffing suspiciously at their coffee, or wash their hands without worry? How long before people stop monitoring their health and that of their children, pets and livestock to be sure there were no long-lasting effects of using the water before the leak was discovered and the Do Not Use order issued? How long before homebuyers forget that the homes in the valley were all contaminated at one time with this chemical? How long before people recover from the economic impact of this disaster on their paychecks? And what about the effect on their budgets, with having to buy all the water they were using during this time period?

So many questions remain. So many may not be answered for a long time. The one question that must be answered and answered soon, is "how will we prevent this from ever happening again to any community?" I'm waiting to hear the answer to that one.

I have been awed by the way people have managed to get through this. They have stepped up and helped each other, shared information and kept going despite the difficulty. They have vented, joked, worried, laughed and kept each other informed. Erin Brockovich, famous for her role in the movie Erin Brockovich that told the story of her fight against pollution by Pacific Gas and Light, has come to West Virginia to help in the investigation.

Having no electricity can be inconvenient, but having no water? That's a threat to life itself.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


momalizzie said...

I hope you get those answers, because those of us not affected by this tragedy, were worried about those that were. It should never have happened and I only pray that more safety precautions are instilled in these plants. Hugs to you, Granny Sue!

John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

Another one of those accidents that just can't happen - until they do. We are currently worried about the dangers of fracking for shale oil and gas in this country and of course anyone raising concerns is told that everything is completely safe, but is it? Sometimes the human race is not quite as clever as it thinks it is.

Steve Ferendo said...

Unfortunately West Virginia, like some other states, has a long history of political corruption. Money talks in Charleston, opening the door for politicians to look the other way ignoring federal government recommendations to inspect chemical holding tanks, mines and wells. In my part of the state fracking rules and the residents be damned. OK, rant over. My thoughts are with those impacted by this man made tragedy.

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