CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The smell lingers — the slightly sweet, slightly bitter odor of a chemical that contaminated the water supply of West Virginia’s capital more than a week ago. It creeps out of faucets and shower heads. It wafts from the Elk River, the site of the spill. Sometimes, it hangs in the cold nighttime air.
For several days, a majority of Charleston-area residents have been told their water is safe to drink, that the concentration of a chemical used to wash coal is so low it won’t be harmful. Restaurants reopened — using tap water to wash dishes and produce, clean out their soda fountains and make ice.
But as long as people can still smell it, they’re wary — and given the lack of knowledge about the chemical known as MCHM, some experts said their caution is justified.
“I would certainly be waiting until I couldn’t smell it anymore, certainly to be drinking it,” said Richard Denison, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who has followed the spill closely. “I don’t blame people at all for raising questions and wondering whether they can trust what’s being told to them.”
The Jan. 9 spill from a Freedom Industries facility on the banks of the Elk River, less than two miles upstream from Charleston’s water treatment plant, led to a ban on water use that affected 300,000 people.
Four days later, officials started to lift the ban in one area after another, saying tap water was safe for drinking because the concentration of the chemical dipped below one part per million, even though the smell was still strong at that level. By Friday afternoon, nearly all of the 300,000 people impacted were told the water was safe.
Late Wednesday, however, health officials issued different guidance for pregnant women, urging them not to drink tap water until the chemical is entirely undetectable.