IT HAPPENED TO ME: I'm Living In A Chemical Spill

300,000 people in West Virginia are affected by our chemical-laden water, and all I see in the news is Justin Bieber and figure skaters.
Publish date:
February 20, 2014
It Happened To Me, protest, issues, IHTM, chemicals

On January 9th of this year, 10,000 gallons of chemicals known as Crude MCHM and Polyglycol Ethers, or PPH, seeped into the water supply of 300,000 West Virginians, including me. Since then, my neighbors and I have been living in a thick web of deception.

The stories I’m reading every day haunt me. Five schools evacuating 3 weeks after the spill because cooks passed out and children complained of nausea and burning eyes; hospitals canceling surgeries; hundreds of people seeking medical attention; elderly and impoverished having trouble buying water; businesses down thousands of dollars; brown water, flammable water, and, most commonly, water that continues to stink of the chemical –- a not-so- yummy licorice scent.

The most disappointing stories come from the people who are in control of my fate. More than a month after the spill, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) said to a panel of VIP public officials and the water company, “Nobody’s going to say the water is safe, that’s what I’m hearing here.” No one raised a hand.

According to Dow Chemical, “PPH is a slow evaporating, very hydrophobic glycol ether. With its aromatic structure, this product is an excellent match for phenolic coatings and linings; it is also an excellent coalescent for acrylic-based latexes. [PPH] also offers excellent performance benefits.”

I never thought chemicals could sound so sexual, and, yet, when I think about PPH, I definitely have a visceral reaction. Just not the kind I enjoy. It’s more of a heart-fluttering, don’t-cross-me or I-will-find-you-and-destroy-you kind of feeling.

But what do I do when the people who are ruining my days are the Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Centers for Disease Control and Protection, West Virginia American Water and, my personal favorite, Freedom Industries (AKA my chemical-filled ground zero)?

Freedom Industries declared bankruptcy a week after the spill. Any efforts to get money for the millions of dollars in damages they have done to this community will be tied up in courts for years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claimed the water was safe when Crude MCHM reached less than 1ppm in the water. With only two, non-peer reviewed studies to cite and a shaky toxicology process, I am now their lab rat.

I trust no one, and neither does anyone else -- not a soul here is drinking the water. Erin Brockovich has been coming here, for Christ’s sake, and on her own dime. But we don’t need a celebrity endorsement to confirm our fears; the stories of nausea, rashes, burning eyes, headaches and fainting are enough.

Worse, no one can say the long-term health impacts of contact with this chemical or with the multitude of chemicals it could morph into as it interacts with its environment. If I choose to have children, there is no way to tell how what I’m being exposed to now could affect their health.

When I look at national news, I see stories about Justin Bieber’s mugshot, Chris Christie’s chances in 2016, Jay Leno leaving the Tonight Show, phenom figure skaters -– and I am outraged. Even Barack Obama has yet to make one mention of West Virginia -– not a peep. Three weeks in, as he was patting himself on the back at the State of the Union, I was seething about his silence.

All we have right now are our numbers –- 300,000 people without confidence in their water. What do we do when the people we’re fighting have acronyms for names, and we’ve been all but abandoned by much of the outside world?

We organize. We stage rallies and town hall meetings. We call and email our legislators. We sign petitions. We attend hearings.

We are constantly spreading the word over social media, in churches, in the checkout line at the grocery store, while getting our hair done.

Are you drinking the water yet?

Are you taking showers?

When was the last time you did laundry?

Do you run your dishwasher?

Where is our leadership?

Who will step forward to fight for us?

No one, we are finding out, but ourselves.