Sunday, January 26, 2014

Water, Water Everywhere

Diet: Week 12, January 26, 2014
(today’s Diet Challenge ‘report’ is at the end of this post)

I rarely drink bottled water, but I’ve been drinking it almost exclusively for almost three weeks. No, that’s not a new part of my weight loss strategy. On January 9, an aging tank sitting on the bank of the Elk River leaked 7,000 gallons of a noxious chemical a mile or so upstream from the intake pipes of West Virginia American Water Company, which serves Charleston and nine surrounding counties. It’s interesting to be in the heart of a disaster reaching ears around the world, to see the effects on the people around you, to engage in discussions and arguments about the meaning, the solution, and appropriate responses.

Outrage. Anger. Fear. Disgust. Skepticism. These are understandably common reactions.

Nothing much was known about the chemical, crude MCMH, used in the process of preparing coal for market. It was not classified as hazardous, but it is a skin irritant, drink enough of it and it will kill you, smaller amounts will certainly make you ill, producing nausea and I’m guessing cancer if exposed to enough or for long enough. No one has died, hundreds have gone to emergency rooms for treatment of skin ‘burns’ or irritations, nausea, and a few were admitted, but I’ve not seen reporting on anyone seriously ill. People are scared…of the water coming into their homes. Some 300,000 of us live in the affected areas.

Freedom Industries is a small company in way over its head. They didn’t report the spill, and it took hours for the water company to realize how serious the problem was. The chemical tanks are old and rusted looking. The containment system, which it was reported Freedom Industries had plans to fix but hadn’t begun, didn’t work. The Republican mayor of Charleston, who knew the owners apparently, said Freedom Industries was “run by a small group of renegades.” A founder, no longer with the company, had felony convictions for cocaine. Pictures surfaced of the company’s apparent CEO and his girlfriend in furs living large at a posh resort.

Seems just a month ago Freedom Industries was bought by one Cliff Forrest (not the CEO) owner of Rosebud Mining, the 3rd largest underground coal company in Pennsylvania. Forrest put Freedom Industries into bankruptcy last week to protect it from a growing number of lawsuits. The WV Department of Environmental protection and the governor have ordered the company to remove all chemicals from the tanks and dismantle the facility. The U.S. Attorney for the district has opened a criminal investigation.

Investigations will be ongoing to establish causes of the leak, which the bankruptcy filing suggests may have been caused when water from a broken pipe on a street above the tank got under the tank pad, froze during the “Polar Vortex” and punched a hole in the bottom of the tank.

American Water Company is a private company. I can’t remember when they took over our municipal water system, but it hasn’t been that long, maybe ten or fifteen years. As a public utility they are heavily regulated, but our excellent journalists at the Charleston Gazette have pointed out that they only reluctantly hire the minimum number of employees they are required and resist spending money to replace pipes and such. The question of whether private industry is better than government owned utilities at delivering safe water is not one I want to get into, but they did make mistakes in planning, judgment, and execution that have worsened this crisis.

They’ve known there were chemicals in tanks a little more than a mile upstream, but never bothered to find out what they were (state government agencies also either knew through filings or should have known and should have alerted the water company: Department of Environmental Protection, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services). When they started smelling the telltale licorice smell this chemical exudes prodigiously they made the assumption that their filtration system would handle it. They were wrong. Had they closed their intake pipes immediately, the spill would have continued downstream, as it did, into the Kanawha, the Ohio, on to the Mississippi, passing communities prepared with the information that a spill was passing and causing no discernible impact: no fish kills, no known long term effects. Crude MCMH it seems, compared to many hazardous chemicals in our world, is not that toxic. I’ve read, but can’t seem to find the source or confirmation, that it has a “half-life” of two weeks, when it will basically dissolve or dissipate or something.

There has been much made in the reporting and in the voices of an angry and frightened populace about the levels set by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) within a few days of the spill. Very little is known about this blend of chemicals, but based on an industry study on effects on rats on the main element of it, and extrapolating for various risk factors, such as how little is known about it, they set a level of 1 ppm (part per million) as the level below which no adverse health effect is expected. No guaranties, but the best estimate of the scientists whose professional lives are dedicated to making these kinds of determinations.

You may have noticed by now that my tone in writing lacks outrage, anger, frustration, and sounds, I think, at least somewhat objective. And that’s how I feel. Perhaps it’s the fact that I lived without running for several years in my younger days. No, I wasn’t from a poor “hard scrabble” West Virginia farm as they are always described; I was a “back to the lander” in the 1970’s. I lived in rural Maine and rural WV for twenty years. For about five years I had to haul water or dip it out of a well. It didn’t seem like that much of hardship to me to be told not to use our water except to flush toilets. I felt a certain sense of adventure going out in the early morning to the water distribution site to fill up jugs with water that had been trucked in from somewhere else and get free bottled water. I worried about what people without cars or who were homebound were doing to cope, and learned from one grocery store bagger that one way was to just go ahead and take showers. I worried about the poor, the infirm, single mothers with children, people with sick relatives, parents to take care of and the effects it would have on them. I wondered how many were drinking the water despite the warnings. And I figured that with relatively few people going to the hospital (on average, in the first three days under 60/day) and all but a couple being treated and released, that at least the short-term effects of exposure to levels above the established “safe” level weren’t that severe.  Of course, as the story of the irresponsibility of the company and the holes in the regulations regarding above ground storage facilities came out, I was gratified that our legislature immediately began discussing a bill to strengthen protections.

Within 5 days of the spill, cleanup efforts and efforts to flush the system had reduced the levels of the chemical at the intake and outflow pipes of the water company to “non-detectible” (ND) levels of 10 parts per billion or below, or 100 times lower than the level deemed safe. In a process of testing at fire hydrants and other sources in various areas, they began to declare the water safe by “zone” and asked customers to flush their systems by running water for prescribed times. What they could have done better (and still need to do) is explain why, if the water is safe to drink, in many areas, despite repeated flushings, there is still an odor of licorice. The answer is, as the U.S. Agency for  Toxic Substances and Disease explained, that there is no established "odor threshold" below which the chemical’s odor is not detected. So even at ND levels, you are still able to smell it. I've read posts on Facebook by people who now believe the odor means they are not safe, that the chemical has stuck to their pipes, remains in their hot water tanks, will be with us for years. More needs to be done to allay fears if they are based on misconceptions, or to expose the truth if there’s more danger than public officials realize.

So the big winner here is the bottled water industry and installers of high tech water filtration systems. And, also, if you take a glass half-full approach as I am, we got lucky. Lucky it wasn't in fact a highly toxic chemical. Lucky that it wasn't a second Bhopal, a threat we in this valley used to live with every day when we called it Chemical Valley or Cancer Valley; it used to produce and store the same chemical as killed thousands in Bhopal: chemicals that could kill us by way of air. 

A lot of people have sworn off the water completely, at least until they can’t smell it anymore. Some of us continue to drink and cook with bottled water, but bathe, wash clothes and dishes with water that we believe is most likely safe. As the odor recedes more will begin to use it to cook with and even drink, but like a dog that has once snapped at you as you reached to pet it, they will always think twice before filling their glass.

Here's how I'm doing on the 2 Day Diet. One more pound and I'm half way to my goal!
Beginning weight 11/3/13: 209 lbs.
Height 5'8" Age: 61
Goal weight: 165 lbs.
Total loss goal: 44 lbs.
Beginning waist size: 43 in.
Current waist size: 40 in.
Weight end of week 12:  188 lbs.
Gain/Loss this week: -1 lb.
Total Gain/Loss:  -21 lbs.


  1. Congratulations making it through the eating plan on solely bottled water. I would think that would be very hard. I'm down 6 lbs--the two fasting days are still a challenge to get through, though. I keep waiting for them to get better. Maybe this round.

  2. Interesting you refer to them as fasting…I call them no-carb days. What part of it do you find most difficult? Is it the meals, finding a satisfying snack, or simply a sense that without the carbs you can't get full? And six pounds? Nothing to sneeze at. If it's just the two days that are a challenge for you, that's the kind of sacrifice during which you at least you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think some people get fall off wagons that have only one rutted track to follow...