Businesses divided on water
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fifty-five days after the Freedom Industries chemical leak, Leonoro's Spaghetti House on Charleston's East End still greets customers with a sign indicating it is preparing its food with bottled water.
Directly across Washington Street at Tudor's Biscuit World, a printout of a Feb. 24 Associated Press story is prominently displayed in the drive-thru window. The report said federal officials had used the word "safe" for the first time to describe water in the area affected by the spill.
"NOW USING TAP WATER," a badge affixed to the piece of paper announces.
Tudor's and Leonoro's highlight the remaining divide among residents regarding the safety of tap water supplied by West Virginia American Water's Kanawha Valley distribution system.
Nearly two months have passed since the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries chemical spill tainted the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians. Since then, the ominous licorice odor has slowly faded from tap water, giving some reassurance that the water is safe. Others remain unconvinced that the water is safe and continue to take extra precautions to avoid tap water.
"I do see it getting better. Now we're serving a lot more fountain drinks than we did before," said Al Leonoro, owner of Leonoro's Spaghetti House. "It's starting to improve, but (fear) is still out there. And there's some people who will never trust it."
Leonoro himself thinks the water is safe, and he said he has stopped getting calls from customers asking if the restaurant is using tap or bottled water for cooking. But by catering to those who still distrust tap water, Leonoro believes he has earned business he wouldn't have gotten otherwise.
He admitted he can't keep running his business off bottled water forever and said he will probably continue using bottled water "for another month at most."
Public trust in the water supply has been damaged by recurring instances of the licorice odor popping up in schools. Dr. Letitia Tierney, state health officer and commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, told The Daily Mail on Feb. 6 that water that smells like licorice isn't necessarily dangerous. But as recently as Feb. 17, a licorice odor from water at Grandview Elementary School caused several teachers to experience dizziness, minor headaches and burning eyes and nostrils, forcing the school to close early for the day.
Subsequent testing at Grandview later that day revealed no traces of crude MCHM at a 10 parts per billion screening level. The last time MCHM was detected in a school was Feb. 24: two parts per billion of MCHM was found in the water at H.E. White Elementary in western Clay County. The last time MCHM was detected from any government testing was Feb. 28, when three parts per billion was detected in water from a hydrant in Clay County.
Though these incidents are becoming less frequent, Joy Gunnoe, owner of Gunnoe Farms Sausage and Salad, is still having water brought in to her Oakridge Drive facility to prepare her products. She worries that if the chemical odor keeps reappearing in schools, it could also reappear at her manufacturing plant and taint her products that are distributed to grocery stores across 17 states.
"I feel since the water company directed everyone else to change their filtration systems on their water supplies and didn't do so themselves, I don't feel the water quality is going to be correct until their filters are changed out," Gunnoe said. "There are residues of the chemical in their filtration system, or else you wouldn't see it popping up in schools. I'm scared to death it will happen and I'll have to throw away hundreds of pounds of product again."
The norm of turning on a faucet to fill the plant's large cooking pots has been replaced by manually filling the pots bucket by bucket with water from a water buffalo filled in St. Albans daily.
"It has become kind of normal," Gunnoe said. "It's a whole new way of doing business. I'm just not comfortable going back to that tap water yet and I feel like many people feel the same way."
Gunnoe takes up issue with the fact that West Virginia American Water's carbon filters have not been changed since they were overpowered by crude MCHM nearly two months ago. She claims many strange problems have plagued the plant's plumbing since the chemical leak; for example, she says a residue "that almost looked like a silicon substance" came out of the plant's drains a few weeks ago.
West Virginia American Water gave the Charleston Daily Mail a tour of its Charleston water treatment facility last month and explained the inner workings of the filtration process. The treatment plant has 16 carbon filters, and Laura Jordan, external affairs manager, said it takes about three days to change each one. She said the filters would all be changed in response to the chemical leak, but that process couldn't begin until spring, when water is in less demand and filters can safely be taken offline for replacement.
Meanwhile, Gunnoe said her company will not be using the tap water until West Virginia American Water has replaced all 16 of its carbon filters.
Ann Saville, owner of Taylor Books and Charleston Brewing Company, heard many customers' water worries at the bookstore's cafe in the weeks following the chemical spill. Saville had a charcoal filtration system installed under the bookstore - she claims her cafe's coffee is now being made with "the best drinking water anywhere around" - and sent the water to be tested by an independent laboratory in Ohio. She said the results indicated non-detectable levels of MCHM and "a whole list of stuff," and those results are available at the counter for those who are leery.
"(Customers) were expressing distrust of the water company when (officials) said there was nothing in it," Saville said. "That's why we went out-oftown to get it tested by an independent laboratory. I was doing it chiefly because people seemed better and I wanted to make them feel better . . . If it can ease a few minds, that's good."
Like Leonoro, Saville said customers have stopped asking about the cafe's water situation. She thinks the water crisis has gone by, but she continues to cater to those who are skeptical.
Saville said she has been using and drinking the water ever since the odor disappeared, and that her biggest frustration now is the lack of regulation of aboveground storage tanks. "When I look at how many times we have inspectors coming around the cafe and brewery," Saville said, "inspectors are supposed to go around looking at chemical farms."
Tudor's Biscuit World did not return repeated requests for comment for this story.