CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- By In the governor's Jan. 27 letter to FEMA requesting continuing aid, he says that despite the government's best efforts "... many people no longer view their tap water as safe and are continuing to demand bottled water ... It is impossible to predict when this will change, if ever."
Many are boycotting any restaurant that will not agree to cook or even wash dishes with water from outside the area. It is hard for some to believe that small amounts of this chemical, "non-detectable" amounts of 10 parts per billion or less, more than 100 times below the level deemed safe by CDC scientists, could carry so much odor. It is hard for people to believe water smelling like licorice will not cause them harm. Many are just plain frightened, angry, suspicious and skeptical. Their sense of trust has been compromised.
The governor acknowledges his best efforts have not been good enough. That's because this is not a problem he can "fix." This is an education and credibility problem.
Press conferences won't do it. I attended the Town Hall Meeting sponsored by WCHS on Jan. 29. No one on the panel contested claims that the water remains a danger to all of us. It would have been helpful to have Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Letitia Tierney or someone from the CDC, and someone from West Virginia American Water.
The governor should send a team of experts to town meetings in every affected area to listen to people's fears and present them with balanced viewpoints and evidence.I hope those responsible at Freedom Industries go to jail. West Virginia American Water company should pay damages (and not recoup them through a rate hike) for their poor judgment allowing the chemical into their system.
We need new laws to give appropriate agencies the power to regulate and inspect all facilities that transport, store, and use all potentially harmful chemicals that can foul our air, water or land. Those sickened must have medical bills paid and be compensated for lost work time; and more studies are needed on crude MCHM to determine conclusively what dangers exposure may pose. Medical monitoring should be instituted, at least for those who had greatest exposure or were sickened.
I respect anyone who decides they will no longer drink the water. Erin Brockovich and her associate told us not to use the water because unknown compounds were created from chlorine treatment. Their experience with hazardous pollutants around the country has taught them to err on the side of caution. But, isn't there also a point at which you decide not to assume the worst?
Strong emotions change our brains. The anger, frustration and fear many of us feel as we learn the very essence of life -- our water -- is threatened, starts a chemical reaction in the brain making it difficult to think clearly, rationally, and objectively. Some of us may actually have a form of post-traumatic stress. Smells are particularly good at triggering past emotions. Every time we smell the licorice we may experience our initial emotion again.
Harness those emotions for good. We must do whatever it takes to put pressure on state government and West Virginia American Water to clean up this mess and make sure it never happens again.
Brokovich said we don't need more laws, we need our laws enforced. Our DEP, many in the southern coalfields know from years of experience, does not enforce existing standards. If our legislators don't pass needed legislation, and if our governor will not direct DEP to enforce the law, we need to elect people who will make war on polluters and keep us safe, healthy and prosperous!
Epstein, a retired teacher, is a musician and writer living in Charleston.
CORRECTION: This is a corrected version of this commentary. An earlier version incorrectly summarized a now outdated Scientific American article and the pattern of hospital visits related to the chemical spill. It also omitted the attribution to Erin Brokovich in the last paragraph.