A recent report issued by Kanawha County gave the first concrete indication of just how many people suffered from the Freedom Industries chemical spill. In January, a leak in a storage tank led to 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) spilling into the Elk River near Charleston, tainting the drinking water of 300,000 people. Authorities issued warnings that residents not use water for at least a week until it was purified. More than 60 lawsuits have since been filed, over half of them awaiting class certification.
While countless people who filed lawsuits complained of feeling ill effects from the drinking water, no official study documented the number and types of cases. The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department report surveyed only 500 people through randomized telephone sampling but did so in some detail.
The report found that, after the spill, one-third of those surveyed had someone in their household become sickened. Despite being warned by officials, 25 percent of the 500 who responded said that they drank the tap water and used it for other tasks like showering. Yet, even after officials lifted the no-use order, traces of chemicals remained in the water supply into March. Of those made ill, 40 percent reported their first symptoms after the order was lifted and the water deemed “safe.” Their illnesses included rashes and skin irritation, as well as diarrhea, vomiting, and dizziness.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, noted that complaints were still coming in, especially from schools that needed their water flushed multiple times. In addition, even now, no more than 40 percent of respondents were drinking the water or giving it to their pets. Not even 10 percent described the water as “safe.”
In addition to this report, another one was issued by local activities stating that jail staff denied inmates access to clean water during the days following the chemical spill, and afterward failed to give the water a rigorous cleaning. As a result, several inmates in Charleston’s South Central Regional Jail reported becoming sick after officials gave them just two bottles of water per day following the spill. Inmates were forced to choose between becoming dangerously dehydrated and drinking tainted water. One inmate reported that his urine turned almost orange in color from dehydration. After jail staff stopped issuing bottled water, and inmates had to drink from the tap again, a former inmate claimed that the water had a licorice smell, consistent with the smell of MCHM, through March. “The water was still bad, but they said it wasn’t,” he said.
It is safe to say that the 60-plus lawsuits already filed will not be the last in response to what was one of West Virginia’s biggest disasters. In all likelihood, inmates in the regional jail will file lawsuits as well, if they have not done so already.
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