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Getting into hot water

Don't say West Virginia never gave you anything, western Kentucky!

As I type these words, folks in Louisville, Ky., are getting their first licorice-scented whiffs of the chemical compound MCHM we in Charleston first became acquainted with on Jan. 9.

The weeklong, 400-mile downriver trip from Charleston to Louisville failed to dilute the plume of MCHM enough to make its distinctive odor disappear. Since the same odor remains in my house after opening a tap, despite having been diluted down to less than 1 part per million, I suspect people in Ohio River towns in Illinois will soon have a chance to receive our gift.

While the MCHM spill and the ensuing lack of potable water -- which lasted a week in my case -- is not something I'd want to go through again, the experience was somewhat educational.

I learned some great tricks for dealing without water for drinking, bathing and laundering from other folks facing the same challenge. For instance, to keep a steady supply of hot water handy all day, you can plug in a crockpot full of safe water. You can also take an insulated five-gallon water cooler, fill it with stove-heated bottled water, and use its tap to pour out however much warm water you need to wash and rinse dishes. A previously unused home sprayer ordinarily employed to kill bugs or seal decks makes an efficient shower, when filled with stove-heated safe water.

I learned that some of the waterless cleaning products now on the market contain chemicals that sound as bad as the stuff that contaminated our water system. You don't want to be standing near an open flame while using the dry shampoo we bought. The first three ingredients listed on the bottle were butane, isobutene and propane under which were warning labels for high flammability and the fun fact that the product "can kill instantly" by inhaling it.

I learned that the caps of half-liter plastic bottles of drinking water can cause sharp, intense pain when stepped on with bare feet, and I learned that panic shopping at Kroger is much more of a contact sport in a water crisis than in an impending snowstorm.

I learned that many out-of-state reporters have great difficulty pronouncing "Kanawha," or in some cases, of even realizing that Charleston is located in West Virginia.

Probably the worst example, posted on a newsroom bulletin board, came from CBS This Morning's website Here's the lead sentence:

"The water supply for hundreds of thousands of people is contaminated after a chemical spilled into the Elf River in Charleston, South Carolina."

I learned how to find a Laundromat in Huntington, since similar establishments closer to home were jammed past capacity. Once my laundry was done, I got reacquainted with the simple pleasure of a restaurant meal, and not having to heat bottled water to wash my dishes when I finished eating.

I also learned that our National Guard could handle a water contamination crisis as well as it has handled floods, derechos and blizzards. I learned to appreciate the efforts of hundreds of volunteers and emergency service workers who made the chore of picking safe drinking water fast and easy, at least at the places I visited.

But there will be one negative consequence from the emergency that will have long-lasting consequences for me.

I'll never be able to look at a licorice stick in the same way ever again. 


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