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Responding in Crisis

A scientist collects a water sample from a river.


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In January, about 10,000 gallons of a coal-washing chemical spilled into the Elk River, affecting the water system for 300,000 residents in a nine-county area. Here’s how some members of the Mountaineer community responded in partnership with state government, federal agencies, elected officials, health and environmental professionals, and others.

JAN 9, 5:00 P.M.

In the West Virginia Public Broadcasting newsroom on Capitol Street, Ashton Marra saw the first official reports of the Charleston, West Virginia, chemical leak on Twitter.

She started asking why the public was officially notified about a leak that their noses told them had begun several hours earlier. Why the water system hadn’t been aware of the nearby chemicals. Why officials weren’t monitoring the spill site.

The WVU alumna set out with her colleagues over days, which turned into months, to find out why this was happening to all of them and discover what legislators would do about it.

From 5:00 p.m. Thursday when the “Do not use” order was announced until the early hours of the next morning, Marra reported what little was known about the leak and how officials were responding. It wasn’t until she surfaced on Sunday after several 18-hour days that she thought about how she would cook without using her faucet and how long the bottle of water she used to brush her teeth would last.

“This was one of the first times probably in a long time that as I was covering a story I realized how much this was affecting me personally and affecting my life,” Marra said.

It was sometimes a feeling of panic and always one of urgency. After the advisory was lifted, new problems surfaced for Marra and for the approximately 300,000 people in the Kanawha Valley.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines, but later advised that pregnant women shouldn’t drink the water. Students and teachers passed out from the licorice smell from the MCHM chemical in schools. Twelve days after the public health advisory, Freedom Industries announced that another chemical, PPH, had also leaked from the tank.

Marra, the statehouse reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, would follow the formation of a bill in the legislature to prevent another public health crisis like this one. As she live-tweeted from press conferences and senate committees, she felt the public’s concerns immediately. They tweeted her questions to ask, requested details, and thanked her for updates.

“It’s in these times where bad things are happening that you realize how much of an impact you have on the community that you’re reporting for.”
—Ashton Marra

“It’s in these times where bad things are happening that you realize how much of an impact you have on the community that you’re reporting for,” she said.”... The easiest way to see how much you’re impacting the community right now is to do it on Twitter.”

After the emergence of the first local reports, the story went national. National Public Radio, PBS’ NewsHour, and Al-Jazeera called to ask Marra to explain the story.

Ashton Marra in the Capitol Building. She covered the story for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Ashton Marra, a WVU alumna, stands inside the State Capitol.

“That’s when you realize that this is more than just a West Virginia story,” Marra said. “This story is more than just important to me or the people in Charleston because they’re living it. People around the country are starting to take notice. That’s what made it seem that what we were doing was so much bigger.”

JAN 9, 10:30 P.M.

Paul Ziemkiewicz sent a very short e-mail.

“What spilled? I could be ready tomorrow.”

Reporters wanted to know something, anything about 4-methylcyclohexane methanol — mostly what harm it could pose to the public — and they were looking to the state’s flagship university.

Paul Ziemkiewicz in a lab.

West Virginia Water Research Institute Director Paul Ziemkiewicz testified to the state legislature on how to prevent or contain such a chemical spill in the future.

Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, was ready to respond, but first he had to find out what MCHM was. He had never heard of it.

And in the 25 years he’d been at the institute that had never happened in the case of a public health crisis.

JAN 10

By the early morning hours, he was able to tell the dozen or so reporters who called that day that the chemical was unlikely to reach acutely toxic levels. “It was ultimately discovered that about 10,000 gallons of chemical had leaked into the river. He calculated the concentration would probably be between 8-24 milligrams per liter in the Elk River, and that it would flow away within days.”

But the public water system was another story. The chemical lodged inside hot water tanks and dead ends in the pipes and would take much longer to flush from the system. People wanted to know if this water that smelled like the liqueur anisette at even low levels was safe to drink.

“I never thought water would become such a precious commodity. You never think something like that would happen in your hometown.” —Samuel McLaughlin

“Most people can smell MCHM at levels far below the CDCrecommended level,” he said.

So, to be safe, he advised that, “if you can smell it, don’t drink it.”

MCHM is an irritant that if ingested, say in the shower, could damage the lungs. Skin and eyes were also at risk. That same morning, WVU computer science major Samuel McLaughlin got a call from an old friend, Logan Spears, who cofounded a software company with him in college.

Samuel McLaughlin helped make an app to help residents after the chemical spill.

Samuel McLaughlin, a computer science student, created an app to help Charleston-area residents find places to access safe water.

“Let’s make an app for this,” Spears told McLaughlin. “It’s our way to help out.”

The two grew up in Charleston and were receiving stories from friends and family about the contamination plaguing their hometown.

Both attended George Washington High School, where their interest in apps and software was piqued in Karen Donathan’s computer science class.

They would now apply that knowledge to a civic good.

The pair worked together. Spears and his team built an interactive map, and McLaughlin took care of the rest.

By 2:00 p.m. a beta version of West Virginia Find Water was up online.

Within 24 hours of the news breaking, residents now had a resource to see where they could grab a clean shower, wash their laundry, or go for a bite to eat knowing which restaurants remained open.

The site spread on social media and was retweeted by media outlets. quickly garnered 10,000 hits and sent hundreds of SMSalerts to people who had registered with the site.

“We wanted to get something out as quick as possible,” McLaughlin said. “Then we could go in and refine it.”

While the governor’s office and various state agencies released lists of clean water sites, there was no one catchall mechanism. That’s where McLaughlin and his friends came into play.

They collected information from government agencies, media, and the general public, dumped it into a spreadsheet, and wove it into the interactive online map.

“I never thought water would become such a precious commodity,” McLaughlin said. “You never think something like that would happen in your hometown.”

McLaughlin’s team also delivered timely SMS notifications for updates on new water locations and shipments.

They received a flood of positive feedback.

“As computer scientists, that makes it worthwhile,” McLaughlin said. “I urge all computer science students to consider what they can do to give back. In classes, we write a lot of code for projects. Why can’t that be repurposed for a good use?”

JAN 13

Jennifer Weidhaas and Lance Lin knew from the start that they needed to get involved.

Before becoming engineering faculty members at WVU, Weidhaas spent time as a hazardous waste operations worker while Lin worked for the Illinois State Water Survey and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.

It seemed like Charleston could benefit from their expertise.

They drafted a research proposal and telephoned the National Science Foundation on January 13 — the Monday after the spill. The NSF awardedWVU a $50,000 grant to study the effects of the leak to develop more comprehensive, interdisciplinary, and innovative approaches to averting future incidents.

Weidhaas and her team headed to Charleston. They, working along with Ziemkiewicz, collected water samples over the next month, at one-week intervals.

“Our sampling crews went upstream and downstream near the spill site, and collected tap water from a few residences,” Lin said. “When we were at the site of the spill, you smelled it. The chemical was still there two weeks after the event.”

JAN 17

A week after Ziemkiewicz first weighed in on the issue, he testified before the Joint Commission on Water and Natural Resources in the West Virginia legislature.

“I told the legislature the best thing to do to deal with this sort of thing in the future is just make sure that whatever you have in a big tank — I don’t care if it’s milk — stays in the tank or stays on the site,” Ziemkiewicz said.

The disputed rights of agencies to regulate such tanks and the need for secondary containment were key issues. This unregulated tank did not have fail-safes, so when it developed a leak, its contents went into the river.

Ziemkiewicz went into this field to bring the waters that sustain us back to life. And he does that at the institute that developed standards for acid mine drainage and site reclamation, and helps residents find out what may have gone wrong with their creeks, streams, and rivers. The value of Ziemkiewicz and his Water Research Institute team becomes clear in a crisis when the state needs knowledgeable and fast-acting researchers, project managers, and sampling crews. When people want answers, he can get them, fast.

“WVU has a mission of service to the people of the state, so my job is to provide answers when called upon,” Ziemkiewicz said. “It’s good to be timely, and it’s better to be right. In this case it looks like we were both.”

“WVU is a land-grant institution. It’s part of our mission to do research that benefits the state taxpayers. It is only appropriate for us to respond to this event and answer the questions that need answered.”
—Jennifer Weidhaas


WVU helped in other ways, from the West Virginia Poison Center fielding hundreds of calls from the public, to WVU Extension Service agents sharing safety information to protect humans and animals from the spill’s affects, and students collecting supplies to send to Charleston. When the spring thaw came, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed legislation to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks and called for a study of the long-term health effects in the aftermath of the spill.

Back at WVU, faculty are analyzing the water samples collected in Charleston. They’re trying to “replicate” the conditions at the water treatment plant in Charleston. That would help determine whether the chemicals were absorbed into the distribution system, and if so, at what levels.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Lin said. “I’d never seen an accident quite like this before — the contamination of the drinking water distribution system of a major city.”

Their research is ongoing, but based on preliminary results, the team found that the flushing campaign instituted following the leak was ineffective.

Residents of the nine affected counties were given specific instructions a few days after the spill for flushing household waterlines.

Water company officials advised residents to first flush all the hot-water spigots in their homes for 15 minutes. Then they were encouraged to open all cold-water faucets for five minutes, followed by outdoor faucets for another five minutes. At last, residents were asked to flush any appliances that used water.

“We can say that the flushing campaign was not as effective as West Virginia American Water wanted it to be,” Weidhaas said. “We saw a slight increase in concentrations in homes as they were flushing.”

Jennifer Weidhaas and Lance Lin

WVU researchers Jennifer Weidhaas and Lance Lin are analyzing the results of the collected samples.

Weidhaas noted that despite the increase, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control stated the water was safe enough for residents since contamination levels were less than 1-part-per-million.

“That being said, we have secondary drinking water criteria,” she added. “We don’t like odors or funny tastes in our water. So while the CDC may say it’s safe, it’s not very pleasant for residents to use. I would argue that if you can’t smell the distinctive licorice smell in your water, it’s most likely safe to use. But we have to hang our hat on what the best available science says.”

In the coming months, Weidhaas and her team hope to bring forth the “best available science” from their research. The team is even using the project as a teaching tool — faculty purchased analytical equipment that is being used by undergraduate students with the samples in teaching labs.

“WVU is a land-grant institution,” she said. “It’s part of our mission to do research that benefits the state taxpayers. It is only appropriate for us to respond to this event and answer the questions that need answered.”