© 2024 WXPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Months From Water Crisis, Leaking W.Va. Tanks Are Demolished


At the beginning of the year, residents of Charleston, West Virginia smelled a licorice odor in their water. It turned out a chemical used in coal production had leaked out of a nearby storage tank, contaminating the water supply for 300,000 people. This week, tanks at the center of this crisis are being demolished. But as Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports, that doesn't necessarily bring closure.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: A bulldozer with a big blade attached to it is cutting into a huge, white storage tank and pulling off large sheets of metal. Among the tanks that will soon come down is the one that housed the chemical that leaked into the water supply earlier this year. The site's owned by Freedom Industries.

MARK WELCH: I think tearing down the tanks is pretty much the end. This is the end of Freedom, and it's visible.

MISTICH: That's Mark Welch, Freedom's chief restructuring officer. The demolition is hardly the end of his work. Freedom brought him in three months ago to see the company through bankruptcy proceedings. He's dealing with ongoing litigation, creditors and personal injury claims. He'll also oversee the cleanup of this site.

WELCH: So we'll go forward from that. We'll test it, and we'll report on whatever is in the soil and how we're going to clean it up.

MISTICH: As tank demolition was underway two miles from Charleston, federal regulators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board were in the Capitol, releasing early findings from their investigation into the spill. Lead investigator Johnnie Banks said what many residents already suspected.


JOHNNIE BANKS: Due to the extensive corrosion, that the CSB suspects that the leaks existed prior to January 9.

MISTICH: In downtown Charleston, Suzanne Spencer said she saw this update on the news.

SUZANNE SPENCER: We're aware of it. I'm not happy about it 'cause sounds like we've been drinking polluted water for years.

MISTICH: Spencer says she and her husband are still drinking bottled water even though the ban on tap water was lifted about a week after the spill. That was almost six months ago. But most others are back to drinking tap water, which isn't to say they don't think twice when they do so. Penny Goff owns a greenhouse business on the outskirts of Charleston.

PENNY GOFF: I don't think there's ever a day that I don't drink a glass of water out of the faucet that I don't think about something lingering or even about something different being in the water that might affect not only the health of our employees and the people working with the water but also health of our plants.

EMMETT PEPPER: At this point, I'm pretty much drinking the water all the - you know, as I was before. Of course, it makes you wonder how safe it was before.

MISTICH: That's Emmett Pepper. He's an attorney working with a local group called Advocates for a Safe Water System. The group formed after the spill and will provide input to the state public utility regulators, who are still investigating the water company's response to the spill.

PEPPER: We see a lot of areas where the water company could've done things differently. And some of those are making sure they had a plan in place and were testing for the water. Some of that was just knowing what was upstream.

MISTICH: Lawmakers have already passed a bill requiring the water company to provide an early warning system among other precautions. Companies that own aboveground storage tanks will also come under new regulation. That's being hammered out by the state's Department of Environmental Protection. As for the Freedom tanks coming down this week, resident Suzanne Spencer calls that a good first step. For NPR News, I'm Dave Mistich in Charleston, West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Mistich
Originally from Washington, W.Va., Dave Mistich joined NPR part-time as an associate producer for the Newcast unit in September 2019 — after nearly a decade of filing stories for the network as a Member station reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In July 2021, he also joined the Newsdesk as a part-time reporter.
Up North Updates
* indicates required