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by Margaret Hartley


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Trusting the water

In the morning, I go to the bathroom, wash my hands, brush my teeth. After I walk the dog, I usually fill the coffee pot and wash a few dishes while the coffee is brewing.

I don’t give much thought to the water that runs out of my faucets. I know it’s fine.

I presume most people around here also take their water for granted, not worrying if it’s safe to take a shower, or to dampen a washcloth to clean the baby’s face.

If we are aware of a lack of clean water, it’s generally in connection with a catastrophe, often in a far-off place. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti brought into focus the lack of clean water there. The 2011 tsunami in Japan that wrecked the Fukushima nuclear plant contaminated drinking water, ground water and ocean water.

But here? We don’t much worry about what comes out of our taps.

For more than a week, people in West Virginia had to worry, after a chemical spill rendered their tap water unusable.

About 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to clean coal — called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol or crude MCHM — spilled into the Elk River on Jan. 9, threatening the water supply for about 300,000 people in nine counties.

The chemical leaked out of a 35,000-gallon, above-ground storage tank at Freedom Industries, a Charleston company that produces chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries, among others. The leak entered the river about a mile upstream from the biggest water treatment plant in the state, Reuters News Service reported.

A state of emergency was declared, schools and businesses shut down, and residents were told not to use water for anything but flushing toilets. The National Guard trucked in water, and bottled water flew off the shelves at area stores.

The Charleston Gazette newspaper has been publishing color-coded maps each day so readers can see if their water is safe yet — red means don’t use, blue means it’s OK. By Wednesday of last week, about 52,000 people were able to begin using water again, the paper reported. First they had to flush their home pipes, though.

These kinds of spills call to mind what pollutants can do — in a pretty brief period of time — to our water, and to our peace of mind. The EPA collects data on spills and incidents, from oil sheens on water to major chemical leaks. Most are “routine” spills, small amounts of contaminants that are quickly cleaned up. Less common are the major spills — the BP disaster, the Exxon Valdez.

The West Virginia spill was first reported by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection air-quality officials, after they started getting reports about an odor from area residents — a sweet, licorice smell.

The Charleston Gazette said last week that even after residents were told their water was safe, they were still smelling licorice. Some were afraid to use the water, even after it had been declared safe, the paper reported.

I guess it takes some time to trust again.

So what went wrong in West Virginia? Various published reports say that the storage tank terminal hadn’t been inspected since 1991, when it was owned by a different company. The Associated Press reported that the chemical from the leaking tank was escaping over a cracked containment wall, and that some sort of drying agent had been spread.

That seems to indicate that the leak had been going on for some time, and that someone had been aware of it, before the chemical actually made it into the river.

That someone should have reported the leak and maybe stopped it before it caused a disaster. An earlier inspection might have discovered the hole in the storage tank well before 7,500 gallons could have escaped.

The federal Clean Water Act has done tremendous work cleaning up our waterways since it was enacted in 1972. The improvements can be seen in our local waters, from the streams in the Glove Cities that used to run different colors every day depending on what dyes were being used in the leather-works factories, to the Hudson River, where fish and other wildlife have returned.

But we need continued vigilance, enforcement and responsibility, from our regulatory agencies, business owners, activists and individual citizens, to keep pollutants out of our water. We can inform ourselves about the potential polluters in our neighborhoods, acceptable emission levels and inspection schedules. And ask questions when there is a breach in protocol.

We can do our part in our own homes too, by not flushing chemicals, paints, oils and pharmaceuticals down the drain. We can eliminate or reduce our use of household chemicals — pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, heavy-duty cleaning products. We can work to reduce run-off by collecting rainwater, washing cars on grass instead of pavement, reducing the amount of nonporous pavement around our homes, advocating for the same at our schools and businesses.

We can speak up, for everyone who relies on clean water when they turn on the tap.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Contact or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter.

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