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More questions than answers about water at town hall meeting

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Frustrated by the chemical spill, Linda Frame doesn't see much of a reason to stay in Charleston.  

"My kids want to go to WVU," but if things don't change, "I'm going to encourage them to leave," she said.

Frame made the comment at a town hall meeting held in the gymnasium of St. Matthews Episcopal Church in South Hills on Monday night.

About 100 people gathered at the church to try to get answers about "what's next?" since a coal-processing chemical leaked out of a tank Jan. 9 at Freedom Industries and into the Elk River, contaminating the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians.

Residents were told not to use their water for days after the leak. But since the ban was lifted, many still don't feel comfortable drinking the water -- which many still say smells like licorice.

Nearly everyone raised his or her hand when asked who still wasn't drinking the water. Dozens of questions were asked during the two-hour meeting, but not many answers were provided. 

West Virginia House of Delegates members J.B. McCuskey and Eric Nelson, both R-Kanawha, and state Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, attended the meeting. McCuskey and Charleston City Councilman Courtney Persinger organized the discussion.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, and Paul Painter, laboratory director for ALS Global in South Charleston, also took questions from residents.

Painter was the only panelist who said he had been drinking water from the tap.

"I did bathe through the ban," he said after the meeting, adding, though, that his water didn't have the licorice smell.

Gupta said he's tried to drink the water, but said the smell makes it difficult.

Many residents had questions about a bill, now on the Senate floor, that would require registration, inspection and regulation of above-ground chemical storage tank farms, and require public water systems to develop emergency plans to respond to contamination of their water sources.

"Are [lawmakers] really doing something with teeth or is this a dog and pony show," one man asked. 

Lawmakers admitted that the bill had "imperfect parts" and said they would ask that the process be slowed down to give time for the public's opinion.

"This should be a deliberate, slow study process. This doesn't need to be a knee-jerk reaction," Walters said. "I have a pregnant wife and a three-year-old daughter -- I'm not consuming the water. I'm not cooking with it. I'm worried about my unborn child. I can't get answers."

One woman questioned lawmakers about Chemical Safety Board recommendations made to state officials after prior incidents at the Bayer CropScience plant and the DuPont plant in Belle. In both those reports, the CSB recommended West Virginia establish a program to prevent hazardous chemical releases.

State officials did not heed either recommendation.

"I'd really like to see you all take that up," she told lawmakers. Her comment drew loud applause.

McCuskey, when pushed by a woman about a blog post he wrote about "unreasonable regulations," said he didn't mean "regulations that ensure people and businesses have clean water."

"So you're not talking about the EPA overreaching?" the woman asked.

"There are instances when they do," McCuskey answered, drawing loud questions demanding he give an example. 

"I think it's significantly harder to operate coal mines," he said, quickly adding that's not what Monday's meeting was about.

"There's no war on coal, there's a war on us," a man shouted.

Nelson asked residents to stay positive.

"We don't want this one incident to shut us down," he said. 

Holding back tears, one woman said she just wanted to know "is our water ever really going to be safe or not?"

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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