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MCHM a cloud over state basketball tourney

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A chemical leak that tainted the tap water of 300,000 West Virginians two months ago continues to concern people far outside the leak area who are confronting their own worries about Charleston's water as they visit the capital this week for the state's high school girls basketball tournament.

Some athletes and others at the four-day tournament said they came to Charleston anxious about taking showers and drinking tap water.

After reading about the city's water issues since the Jan. 9 leak of the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM, some people arriving from outside the leak zone opted for bottled, instead of tap water, at area hotels and restaurants. Many even brought their own bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth.

Others, though, believe the problem is well in the past and said they prefer to focus on the moment -- winning a championship.

"We're not concerned about the water," said St. Marys coach Howard Meeks.

The leak into the Elk River fouled the air with a licorice odor that wafted from the water and prompted a water-use ban for anything except flushing toilets and fighting fires for up to 10 days. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not call the water "safe" to use until an advisory was issued in late February.

At the tournament, Pocahontas County High School forward Bobbie McNabb said she and her teammates were hesitant at first to use the shower at their team hotel -- until they tested the water themselves.

"Ran it, smelled it," said teammate Sarah Ryder. Upon not seeing or smelling anything unusual, their fears were eased.

Tucker County forward Savannah Ambrose said she has several friends living in Charleston who kept her informed through social media about the water situation.

Once in Charleston, she found out that "everyone seemed pretty OK with it. They didn't seem like it was as bad as the problem was a couple of weeks ago," she said. "I wasn't really nervous."

A month ago, the Charleston Civic Center, host venue for the state tournament, returned to using regular tap water for food vendors to mix fountain drinks. Civic Center General Manager John Robertson said he hasn't heard any comments all week from anyone concerned about tap water.

"Since the CDC has issued the advisory that there is no problem and has now said the word 'safe,' I think people don't feel so apprehensive now," Robertson said.

While many area restaurants posted signs for several weeks after the leak telling customers that they were using bottled water for food preparation, it was hard to find any near the Civic Center on Thursday.

Tucker County High School cheerleading coach Amber Kyle said that, even though she brought bottled water for her girls to drink and brush their teeth, she hadn't given much thought about whether restaurants are using tap water or not.

"What are you going to do? You have to eat," she said. "When you're down here for a number of days, you have to, and hopefully you're making the right choices."

Dressed in the purple-and-gold school colors of St. Marys, George and Carolyn Wells of Williamstown went to the food court at the Charleston Town Center mall Thursday aware that the restaurant where they ate used tap water to mix their sodas. They, too, brought their own bottled water, in case they get thirsty later. Carolyn Wells said her son and grandson are diabetics, "and I don't want them to get sick."

Meeks, whose team was in the tournament for the fourth time in five years, said he's brought bottled water with him every year his team has been to the tournament.

"In our towns, Belmont water is different than St. Marys water," Meeks said. "We brought our own water for taste. We've done nothing different."

The same approach applies to Martinsburg High assistant girls coach Marsalis Basey, who said he uses bottled and filtered water back home because his area's water has limestone remnants. He said he takes bottled water with him when he goes on the road.

"I value my life," Basey said. "It's no different than going on a vacation and going to Mexico. Now I'm in Charleston, I'm going to use bottled water. I'm sure [the tap water is] fine. They say it's fine. I believe them."


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