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Residents still flock to get bottled water after emergency officially ends

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A day after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin officially ended a state of emergency for nine counties affected by the Elk River chemical leak, Bobbi and Darren Brown said they still fear their tap water.

They were among about a dozen people lined up early Saturday afternoon to get water from a tanker parked in the Big Lots parking lot on the West Side of Charleston.

West Virginia American Water had set up water tankers in four other locations around Kanawha County that were open until 5 p.m. Sunday.

Bobbi Brown, of South Charleston, said she feared that Sunday would be the last day the water company would provide these tanks after Tomblin ended the state of emergency Friday evening.

"They need to keep the tankers coming until the people feel safe again," Bobbi Brown said. "I don't feel safe."

She said she doesn't trust the government tests on the region's water system that show non-detectable levels of the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM.

The chemical leaked from Freedom Industries' tank farm into the Elk River on Jan. 9 and flowed the 1.5 miles downstream to the water company's intake, contaminating the tap water of 300,000 people.

Brown said that shortly after the leak her two beagles got sick from drinking the tap water. She said coming to the water tanker on Patrick Street has been a weekly routine since.

"Not even my dogs have drank from the tap," she said.

Debbie Downs, of South Charleston, also brought several water containers to the tanker on Saturday. She's only been to the tanker once before, but has about 12 gallons saved at her home. Once that runs out, she said she would buy bottled water.

Downs said she wouldn't trust her tap water again until the water company changes its filters. Company officials have said the filters were not compromised by the Jan. 9 chemical leak, but that they will change them to improve customer confidence. Company President Jeff McIntyre said on Friday that there was no firm date for changing the 16 filters because it was weather-dependent.

"I don't understand why they don't do it," Downs said. "This is all about trust."

Several other people filling plastic containers said visiting the tanker has become part of their weekly chores. They said they've developed routines to fill as many water bottles as quickly as possible.

At the Crossings Mall in Elkview, Samuel Riddle filled up two four-gallon jugs at a water buffalo on Saturday.

Riddle said he wouldn't trust the water until he sees more tests from outlying areas.

He recalled the day after the leak, when the water company supplied two tankers and a line of people went around the mall's parking lot. Those tankers have downsized over time to just one water buffalo on Saturday.

A steady stream of people came to the Elkview water buffalo with plastic jugs in hand on Saturday.

"A couple of weeks ago a young mother was here with covered bowls that she was using to fill up water," Riddle said. "I gave her one of my jugs. She told me, 'you have to do what you have to do.'"

Anna Hodges, of Pinch, brought two jugs to the Elkview water buffalo on Saturday. She's been going there twice a week since the leak happened.

"I grew up in Marmet, right across form the DuPont plant," Hodges said. "You never think about what's in your water until something like this happens."

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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