No timetable for end to West Virginia water ban

Latest tests after chemical spill are ‘encouraging’

Bonnie Wireman of Dry Branch, W.Va, was angered by the spill, but does not blame the coal or chemical industries.
Michael Switzer/Associated Press
Bonnie Wireman of Dry Branch, W.Va, was angered by the spill, but does not blame the coal or chemical industries.

DRY BRANCH, W.Va. — Governor Earl Tomblin said Sunday that the latest water tests have been encouraging after a chemical spill in Charleston tainted the supply, but people are still being told not to drink or bathe in the water.

Tomblin did not give a timetable for when people might be able to use the water again. But Major General James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard said testing near the water treatment facility has consistently been below 1 part per million for 24 hours.

That is a key step officials needed so that they can begin the next step of flushing the system.


‘‘The numbers look good. They are very encouraging,’’ Tomblin said.

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Schools, restaurants, and other businesses will be closed Monday, but the governor said all state offices would be open.

About 300,000 people were told Thursday not to use the water after a chemical leaked from a the Freedom Industries chemical plant into the Elk River and tainted the water supply.

Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, said the company will lift the water bans by zone, but he did not say when that could be.

For Bonnie Wireman, the white plastic bag covering her kitchen faucet is a reminder that she cannot drink the water. The 81-year-old woman placed it there after forgetting several times the tap water was tainted after the coal processing chemical leaked into the water supply.


The widow of a coal miner, Wireman was angered by the spill, but does not blame the coal or chemical industries.

‘‘I hope this doesn’t hurt coal,’’ said Wireman, who lives in an area known as Chemical Valley because of all the plants nearby. ‘‘Too many West Virginians depend on coal and chemicals. We need those jobs.’’

And that is the dilemma for many West Virginians: The industries provide thousands of good-paying jobs but also pose risks for the communities surrounding them, such as the chemical spill or coal mine disasters.

West Virginia is a picturesque, mountainous state, with deep rivers and streams that cut through lush valleys. But along the twisting, rural roads there are signs of the state’s industrial past and present: Chemical plant storage tanks rise from the valley floors.

Coal mines are part of the rural landscape. White plumes of smoke drifting from factories offer a stark contrast to the state’s natural beauty.


‘‘You won’t find many people in these parts who are against these industries. But we have to do a better job of regulating them,’’ said Wireman’s son, Danny Scott, 59, a retired General Electric worker. ‘‘The state has a lot to offer. We don’t want to destroy it.’’

West Virginia is the second-largest coal producing state behind Wyoming, with 538 mines and 26,619 people working in those mines. The state has about 150 chemical companies that employ 12,000 workers.

Over the years, there have been accidents in both industries that have killed workers and harmed the environment.

In January 2010, a worker died at a DuPont plant after inhaling a lethal dose of phosgene, which was used as a chemical weapon during World War I and today is used as a building block in synthesis of pharmaceuticals and other compounds. An explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine killed 29 people in 2010.

Coal is critical to West Virginia’s economy. Strong coal prices and demand proved vital to the state budget during and after the national recession, from 2009 through 2011.

In November 2009, the state’s unemployment rate was 8.4 percent, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Four years later — in November 2013 — the unemployment rate was down to 6.1 percent, below the national rate of 7 percent.

In Tomblin’s recent state-of-the-state speech, he touted the chemical industry, saying it was among those that grew substantially during the last year.

The spill that tainted the water supply involved a chemical used in coal processing.

But it did not involve a coal mine — and that is a point state officials are trying to convey to the public.

The coal industry, too, was saying it should not bear the blame in this case.

‘‘This is a chemical spill accident. It just so happens that the chemical has some applications to the coal industry, just that fact alone shouldn’t cause people to point fingers at the coal industry,’’ said Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Bostic said the coal industry is very carefully regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection and several federal agencies that ensure it is safe from the very first step in opening a mine to ongoing operations.

Kent Sowards, the associate director for Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said that there is a delicate balance between meeting economic needs and potential costs associated with the coal and chemical industries. In West Virginia’s case, he said, the state is doing a good job of maintaining that balance.

But in communities across the region, with names like Nitro and Dry Branch, people are beginning to wonder if it is worth it.