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Shuffled off in Buffalo

BUFFALO, W.Va. -- The line moved quickly Friday morning outside the old Buffalo High School as members of Buffalo's Volunteer Fire Department and town employees packed residents' cars, trucks and vans with case after case of bottled water.

According to firefighter Shyenne Buck, the number of visitors to the water-distribution center had slackened over the past several days but picked up again Friday morning.

The area, which includes Pliny and Fraziers Bottom, had been systematically cleared to use water by West Virginia American Water between Tuesday afternoon and late Thursday, but that order was rescinded Friday morning after a fire hydrant in the town tested above 1 part per million of the coal-processing chemical "Crude MCHM" following the initial flushing, according to the water company.

The chemical spilled into the Elk River on Jan. 9 from the Freedom Industries site upstream from the water company's intake in Charleston.

"I think people are worried that they're going to run out of water, so they're coming to get more as fast as they can," Buck said.

Buck, who lives in the area, has been using her water for the past several days but said she hasn't noticed the chemical's trademark black-licorice smell or any discoloration in her water.

Debbie Carte, who lives in an apartment near the old high school, said she also had not noticed an odor with her water after the ban was lifted but is still using bottled water and will continue to do so for another month.

"I flushed the lines out like they told me to, but that's all we did," Carte said. "We didn't have an odor -- I guess because we live in an apartment and everyone did it almost at once. I just knew something would happen, so we didn't drink it."

The "do-not-use" order issued to 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties by the water company has been lifted in every zone, but many residents in the affected areas say their water still smells and tastes tainted. The company has advised residents of Buffalo, Pliny and Fraziers Bottom not to drink tap water and to limit contact with it until new tests can be administered.

"I think the governor and everyone started the [tap] water supply too early - before the crisis was even over, and I think West Virginia American Water is not replying like they should," said Buffalo resident Jim Trader. "They shouldn't have started school back for just one day; they should have let the crisis get over with."

Putnam County reopened all of its schools Friday, but was forced to close Buffalo High and Buffalo Elementary schools shortly after 9 a.m. Both schools met the standards for reopening set forth by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, but they were closed after the water company reissued its water ban for the area, according to Putnam County Schools spokeswoman Karen Nowviskie.

Cpl. Will Jordan, a Putnam County sheriff's deputy and the chief of police in Buffalo, said he had heard many complaints from residents about their water after the ban was lifted. He said he believes many people are afraid to drink the water or bathe in it.

"We had a meeting at 8 a.m. with emergency personnel, and that's when they called us back into service to distribute water," Jordan said. "People have come through here talking about their conditions -- complaining about burning or rashes on their bodies and hands, things of that nature. The major concern is people with babies or that are pregnant and don't want to drink the water."

Jordan said emergency services made the call to request four more trailers and a tanker for the water-distribution site in Buffalo after the ban was reissued. He said Putnam County's overall response effort to the crisis has been exceptional.

"County-wide, we've been blessed," he said. "As far as the National Guard or even the Department of Highways -- we call for a trailer, they give us a trailer.

"We emptied seven 53-foot trailers down here in four days, plus a tanker that had 6,000 gallons of water on it. We're at the end of the world down here in Buffalo; we're right at the county line."

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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