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'This is your community and your rights and your water,' Brockovich tells city residents

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As some people were told they could turn on their taps again, about 100 people gathered at the Municipal Auditorium Monday to hear from consumer advocate and activist Erin Brockovich -- known for her work in exposing years of major water contamination in Hinkley, Calif. -- on what to do following last week's chemical leak in the Elk River.

An estimated 7,500 gallons of a coal-processing chemical called Crude MCHM leaked from tanks chemical manufacturer Freedom Industries into the intake at West Virginia American Water. The leak left 300,000 people without water until Monday when several customers' zones were approved to flush their home systems.

In the days following what Brockovich said is a level of water contamination she has never seen, people of the Kanawha Valley are searching for answers and solace.

"No answers are absolute after a situation like this, especially when the water's still not on," Brockovich told audience members.

Brockovich said situations like the chemical spill are not uncommon across the country, though they are on a smaller level.

"There are tank farms like this across the U.S. that are not properly inspected that result in disasters such as this," Brockovich said.

The Gazette has reported that Freedom Industries hadn't been inspected since 1991. Officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection said storage facilities aren't required to be inspected like chemical manufacturing or processing facilities.

People in attendance expressed concern for their health and that of their children. They expressed concern for the environment. They expressed concern for trust in government and the private sector.

"My biggest fear after drinking a glass of my own water is that this is all going to be swept under the rug," said a woman to the audience and Brockovich. "The governor, in one of his first press conferences, he made sure to distance this from coal companies."

"We don't know who to trust," she continued. "Who do we ask and how do we keep the pressure on when we feel like we're facing a tide of go along, get along?"

One woman, from the center of the room, called for accountability from Freedom Industries, which has only held one meeting with reporters following the spill.

"I have a 1-year-old at home, and I don't want her in 20 years to not be able to have children, because of these chemicals," she said. "I want to know when are we going to get some answers about Freedom and who's going to be punished."

One service industry worker spoke about his struggle with being out of work during the water ban, which has now lasted for five days. He asked Brockovich and Bob Bocock, a member of her environmental investigation team, how to fight for answers and a kind of justice.

"You're doing it right now, and by that I mean: you're all here," Bocock said. "Don't let the rest of the country forget what happened here."

"We want you to be proactive," Brokovich said. "This is your community and your rights and your water. And you have every right to be very vocal about the situation."

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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