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More bottled water on tap

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin wants West Virginia American Water to provide bottled water to the nine counties where tap water was contaminated by the Elk River chemical leak earlier this month.

Tomblin wrote to Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American, Thursday afternoon, after a clean-water protest at the state Capitol.

Following the protest, Tomblin and his staff met privately with five protesters to discuss the need to continue delivering bottled water to rural communities affected by the chemical leak.

Tomblin's letter requests that water be provided even though all "do not use" orders have been lifted and tap water has officially been declared safe.

"To date, more than 17.5 million bottles of water have been distributed to residents in the nine affected counties, at an estimated cost of $889,575 to the state," Tomblin wrote. "My staff continues to receive calls from constituents and organizations requesting bottled water be made available in their communities. To help address this need, I have asked West Virginia American Water Company to make available potable and bottled water to West Virginians in the affected areas."

The water company said it is complying with the governor's request.

"At the time this letter was received, West Virginia American Water had already committed to procuring 20 additional tractor-trailer loads of bottled water, at the request of the governor via a phone call earlier today," spokeswoman Laura Jordan wrote. "This will bring the company's total bottled water contribution to 33 truckloads at a cost of approximately $132,000."

Jennifer Sayre, Kanawha County manager, said Thursday evening that Tomblin's office had told her four truckloads of bottled water would arrive by Friday morning.

Earlier this month, the water company drew criticism when it distributed at least two tankers of water filled from the contaminated Charleston-based system.

Tomblin recently sought aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration. The Governor's Office announced Thursday evening that the SBA request had been granted.

A week ago Monday, Tomblin said it is a personal decision to use or not use tap water. Since then, he has made almost no public appearances connected to the water crisis.

The statement about water usage didn't sit well with the protesters, who noted there is significant time and money involved in getting bottled water, especially in poorer, rural areas.

"That personal decision involves an expense," said Rob Goodwin, a volunteer with the West Virginia Clean Water Hub. "We were very clear that, as long as it's a personal decision for people to drink the water, as the governor said, folks that cannot afford to buy bottled water are going to need water brought to them."

The Clean Water Hub sprang up after the Jan. 9 chemical leak to try to help continue water distribution to communities in need.

Goodwin said the group has been focused on getting water to smaller communities, such as Van, Mammoth, Paint Creek, Prenter and Cabin Creek.

The protest was organized by WV Citizen Action for Real Enforcement (CARE).

Johanna de Graffenreid, a CARE coordinator, said the meeting with the governor was very productive and that they've requested an additional meeting, to discuss "the longstanding lack of regulatory enforcements and lack of access to clean drinking water here in the state."

De Graffenreid presented Tomblin's office with a petition asking the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to take over mine inspections from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Chuck Nelson, a retired underground coal miner from Glen Daniel, said the DEP is not doing its job protecting water sources from mining.

"You live out in the coalfields, you're [forgotten] about, you're not going to see the DEP come, and they don't do anything anyway," Nelson said. "We're fed up with it. We've been living with it too long, and we're the ones that've got to pay the price."

The three-pronged protest began Thursday morning outside the Charleston Civic Center, where about 35 people protested the West Virginia Coal Mining Symposium, which was taking place inside.

The symposium, sponsored by the West Virginia Coal Association, was closed to media this year, for the first time in recent memory.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was scheduled to address the gathering at 9:45 Thursday morning, according to the symposium's published schedule. Tomblin, however, did not speak, and it's unclear why. Tomblin sent Charles Lorensen, his chief of staff, in his place.

Amy Shuler Goodwin, Tomblin's communications director, said the governor was never on the schedule.

Bill Raney, president of the coal association wrote in an email that Tomblin, "indicated he had matters regarding the state's emergency situation that had to be done which unexpectedly conflicted with the time he was scheduled."

Jason Bostic, vice president of the Coal Association, said he thought Tomblin was "diverted for some other reason."

It was the first time in Tomblin's tenure as governor that he has not addressed the symposium. Sitting governors almost always address the annual symposium.

The protesters marched back and forth in front of the entrance to the Civic Center, carrying signs and chanting.

"I think it's horrifying that the governor would say it's our decision whether to drink the water," said Vivian Stockman, a protester from Roane County who works for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "I would rather him say that, 'Folks, we're working desperately to figure out what's happened here; there will be changes; we're going to take command; we're going to make sure that the water plant is properly cleaned."

Later, the protest migrated to the Capitol Building, where it doubled in size and set up outside the House of Delegates and then the Governor's Office.

Dustin White, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, was kicked out of the Capitol for bringing in a gallon jug of brownish "unidentified liquid." White said the liquid was water, taken Tuesday from his father's tap in Boone County. It smelled of bleach and the licorice-like odor associated with the chemical leak.

"As of two days ago, it started turning this brownish-red color, and this mucus-like stuff has been coming out of the tap," White said. "I just want people to see it, this is what we're supposed to take care of my dad with."

On Tuesday, the water company issued a precautionary boil-water advisory for White's father's home on James Branch Road in Boone County. Boil-water advisories are not connected to the chemical leak.

White said his dad, a 65-year-old retired coal miner, is suffering from bladder cancer.

"We're using bottled as much as possible now," he said. "After the ban was lifted, we did try to do some laundry but, now that it's this color, we can't even do the laundry, and he needs clean towels and things like that all the time."

Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, eventually was allowed to take the jug into the Capitol and White was let back inside. Manypenny took the jug to his office and said he'd take it to the Board of Public Health for testing.

Manypenny stressed that this was a one-time event and if people want water tested, they should contact the National Guard, although the National Guard has said it will not test in people's homes.

One of the only delegates to engage with protesters outside the House chamber was Delegate Randy Smith, R-Preston.

"You guys need to go after some of the other places besides coal," Smith said. "I'm a coal miner, and I take offense to that."

Also at the Capitol on Thursday, a bill was introduced in the House that would require state inspections of above-ground storage tanks like the kind that leaked the chemical.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously earlier this week but was referred to three committees in the House. Referring a bill to multiple committees often is a sign that the bill does not have good chances of passage.

House Speaker Tim Miley said that is not the case with this bill. He said the bill was sent to the Health Committee because it is a public-health bill, to the Judiciary Committee because of its legal requirements and to the Finance Committee because he was unsure of its fiscal impact.

"The Health Committee has already called for a public hearing for Monday evening so that we can receive input from affected residents," Miley said in an email statement. "Legislation of this magnitude should be addressed very methodically and not rushed through in a matter of days."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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