CLAY, W.VA. —
Christina Belt and her nine-month-pregnant daughter detected an aroma similar to the smell of grape-flavored Kool-Aid as they passed through the Charleston area last week, and the expectant young mother had no reason the think about the glass of water she had at a restaurant there. Noting to worry about — until they heard news about a major chemical spill that has toxified drinking water supplies to an estimated 300,000 West Virginia residents across a wide swath of mostly rural communities.
“We were concerned because she did drink the water,” Belt said as she and others prepared to welcome 50 to 60 guests for her daughter Cheyenne’s baby shower Saturday at the senior center in downtown Clay, a small mountain city with the Elk River running throughout. They had passed through Charleston and enjoyed a meal a short while before news about the chemical leak began to spread. “We could smell grape — like grape Kool-Aid. When we got to the civic center exit, it smelled like grapes.”
Belt said her family lives “closer to Summersville in Nicholas County,” upstream of the spill and the contaminated water pipes, noting they aren’t too worried about having enough water for their own showers, laundry and personal consumption. Their friends and family to the south, however, weren’t as fortunate, she said.
“We have a well for most of our uses, but we know people in the southern part of the county ... they’re just trying to buy as much water as they can,” she said.
Her pregnant daughter shrugged as she recalled hearing the water she had just drank might have been among the compromised water area residents have been told to avoid contact with.
“I was pretty calm. We didn’t really know until after I drank the water,” she said, explaining she had no ill effects from the water she drank at the restaurant that day.
The mother and daughter, along with friends Amanda Jackson and daughter Allison, as well as her friend, Chloe Jones, said they are confident things will be taken care of before the situation gets much worse. “I think they’ve already got FEMA involved, too,” Belt said.
As the ladies prepared for the party, “back-work” volunteer Scotty Parsons helped unload a load of water jugs that had been filled by Boyd County restaurant owner Tal Callihan, including one with a signed handwritten note that said, “Hang in there. We’re here for you.” Callihan said he is well familiar with the difficulty of trying to run a restaurant and business with no water, citing a recent four-day stretch that forced his staff to find creative ways to make hand-washing stations, clean work stations, tables and utensils.
“Hey, I’ve been there. We will do whatever we can to help those people. This is just the first. We will take them as many as they need,” Callihan said that morning as he led a small team filling gallon jugs donated at a moment’s notice by Scottie Smith, general manager of Ashland’s Captain D’s.
Eddie Riffe, a local musician who volunteered to deliver the water jugs, suggested dropping the load in Clay, noting he and his band, The Cougars, played the Elk River Festival there last summer. He and a friend have also extensively fished for bass along the Elk River as it winds through the town, he said, often grinning as he pointed out the sections where they had landed exceptional fish.
“There’s great fishing right down there ... all of this is good. Me and Sammy Duffield fished this thing from one end to the other,” Riffe said, before adding “These are some nice people here and they were really nice to us when we played for their festival. I just wanted to do something nice for them and show up with a little bit of water from a Boyd County restaurant.”
Just across the nearby Roane County line near a spot where two state troopers were murdered in 2012, 71-year-old Stephen B. Smith said many of his neighbors, as well as his wife, Wanda, nearly panicked when they first heard about the chemical spill.
“It come out on TV that Roane County was affected. I knew we have the Clay/Roane Public service District for our water and not that company, but my wife wanted me to buy a case of water while I was at Spencer,” he said, quickly adding he believes he and his neighbors have reasonably good resources to survive such a wide public threat.
“We could make it. We’re out in the country and there’s a few good streams, but downtown ... you don’t stand a chance,” Smith said, adding he was a 33-year employee at the Pennzoil plant in Charleston that preceded the plant identified as the source of the recent widespread water system contamination. Sharing his theory the chemical in question leaked through the corroded bottom of a storage tank, Smith said he can only speculate about the source of the problem. “I would like to know if that is what happened.”
An outdoorsman, Smith said his wife is the only person he’s heard wondering about the chemical spill’s impact on area wildlife.
“My wife said, ‘I wonder what it’s going to do to the fish?’” he said, confirming the current situation is the worst he can remember “since we spilled some crude oil” at the old petroleum plant.
“The Elk is a beautiful river,” he noted. “The Elk has largemouth and smallmouth bass, musky, mud cats and channel cats ... there’s walleye in the Elk River too!”
A few miles away in a shopping center parking lot near the Elkview exit off the interstate, volunteer Holly Chicheli joined members of the Pinch Volunteer Fire Dept. and the Kanawha Sheriff’s Dept. as a seemingly non-stop procession pulled up to receive loads of small water bottles, while a line of others carrying coolers and other large containers to the back of a water-filled truck. Today’s truck came from North Carolina, said Pinch VFD assistant chief Don Milgram, while yesterday’s water was delivered from Pennsylvania.
Milgram and fire department official Duane Legg said they have no idea where the community’s water will come from tomorrow.
“At this moment we don’t have any information. We do hope to hear something,” he said, adding the 56-member fire department would be there to fill water containers until 11 p.m. “or we run out of water.” The officers said they are still unsure how long the emergency situation will persist, and could only speculate people living in places where water lines have been contaminated will soon be in need of things like wet-naps and hand-wipes to help them survive.
On his return trip following the path of the contaminated water from the Elk River into the Kanawha River into The Ohio River which runs near his own parents’ home in Ashland, Riffe noticed the empty parking lots, switched-off “Open” signs and apparently abandoned neighborhoods along the way.
“We’re not that far from home,” he said. “That’s the scary part.”
TIM PRESTON can be reached at