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Who Protects the People Once Their Water's Been Poisoned?

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January 9 of this year about 7500 gallons -- more or less -- of crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) leaked out of a one-inch hole in a storage container owned by Freedom Industries. The container was about 50 feet away from the Elk River, the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians and a feeder tributary to water supplies down stream in Ohio and Indiana.

Within days, two-week-old Freedom Industries filed chapter 11 bankruptcy. Remarkably -- according to Bloomberg News -- the company that's responsible for the largest public water supply poisoning in U.S. history was a days old merger that "combined Etowah River Terminal, the facility where the leak occurred, Crete Technologies and Poca Blending, located in nearby Nitro [West Virginia]." Unless someone's really into conspiracy theories, the timing of the merger is likely nothing more than shockingly good luck from a liability stand point.

Not much is known about MCHM. That'll change now as scientists at Universities across the American southeast have dedicated resources to learning more about MCHM's capacity for harm. Scientific American cautions that the really big questions remain unanswered; stating that the chemical's "effects on cancer or inducing mutations in DNA is unknown."

All in all, the assault upon the water 300,000 West Virginians use to -- or used to use to -- drink, prepare food, wash themselves and their belongings may go unpunished. Two-week-old Freedom Industries could pay with its corporate life, but it's unlikely that any genuine human will be punished for this tragedy.

Now, more than two months after the spill, West Virginians who can afford the additional expense, are still paying for bottled water. Moxxee Coffeeshop in Charleston still uses nothing but bottled water increasing their monthly expenses by $1200. While West Virginians who can't afford bottled water -- necessitating that they drink, cook and bathe in Elk River water -- don't know what price they'll pay until those cancer and DNA tests come back from the labs.

And the contamination process isn't over. The riverbanks absorbed contaminants, residential plastic piping absorbed contaminants and the Kanawha Valley's water distribution system leaks up to 37 percent of the water pumped through their lines. Where that leaked water ended up -- back in the river, in other smaller bodies of water, in wells -- no one really knows.

For hundreds of years, public utilities have furnished municipalities with water and served as a stopgap between potential harm and the people. In the Kanawha Valley, where water is a commodity, it's up to private industry to decide what repairs, upgrades and staffing levels are adequate so long as they don't run afoul of the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC).

West Virginia American Water (WVAW), the public utility with an intake on the Elk River about a mile and a half downstream from the chemical leak, is a for-profit company. Furnishing water to rate payers -- even though the guarantee of water safety still exists -- is very profitable. WVAW's parent company American Water "reported net income from continuing operations of $374.3 million" in 2012. In that same year, American water brought in a little under a billion dollars. American Water customers in West Virginia -- and across the U.S. -- pay water bills so high that the company can take more than a third of their income as profit.

The Elk River contamination and WVAW's response to the spill make some folks wonder whether the company has invested adequately in necessary maintenance and personnel. Mark Brooks, Senior National Researcher for the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) voiced their concerns, "In our experience profits come first for this company. That has impacts on how they treat employees and how they maintain their systems."

Last week in a written response, Laura Jordan, External Affairs Manager for American water stated, "Our total capital investments last year to replace/upgrade water infrastructure in our systems in West Virginia was $32.1 million." Jordan also confirmed that the first water systems -- later purchased by WVAW -- were installed in the 1890's continuing up through the 1920's and 1930's.

Nationally, American Water's profits were 12 times their investment in infrastructure for West Virginia alone. Officials at UWUA urge regulators and lawmakers to investigate carefully how much more should be done to protect consumers.

Earlier this week, D. Michael Langford, National President of the UWUA, commented to the Congressional Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. Langford noted that while the UWUA represents workers at other WVAW sites, they don't represent Kanawha Valley District employees who work in the region directly impacted by the Elk River spill. Langford explained in his comments to congress that the union has "significant information about the status of Company operations." Langford asserts, "Our union has an informed perspective concerning ongoing problems with insufficient staffing and its impact on the maintenance of the Company's aging infrastructure."

In short, Langford knows that WVAW cuts workers and skirts repairs to maximize profits. And Langford thinks that's something congress ought to know too.

Clearly WVAW didn't pollute the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians this winter. The water company -- it can be argued -- share victim status with the people of the Kanawha Valley. But the ratepayers have a right to expect their water company will protect them from a contaminated water supply no matter how extreme or unlikely these occurrences may be.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and consequently, American Water, claim the water's safe even if there's still a detectable odor.

Sarah Halstead, an extension specialist in community and agricultural resource development for West Virginia State University, cautions fellow West Virginians "if you can smell it, it's there. If your nose can detect it, it's there." Additionally, Halstead points out, "The vapor hasn't even been studied." She's hoping the new studies analyze vapor and ascertain "a reliable threshold for public safety." Halstead reminds folks, "Acceptable levels were derived with no scientific basis."

Based on these concerns, UWUA officials feel compelled to remind federal officials what's at stake: With so many disastrous unknowns, the poisoning of the Elk River highlights the need for well-maintained, adequately staffed, water companies.

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