Two Months After Toxic Spill, West Virginians Face Uncertainty Over Water Safety

Posted March 12, 2014

MP3 Interview with Maya Nye, spokesperson for People Concerned About Chemical Safety, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Two months after the leak of 10,000 gallons of a chemical used in coal processing, known as MCHM, into the public water supply that 300,000 West Virginians depend on, almost no one in the affected area is drinking the water. That, despite reassurances from West Virginia American Water four days after the Jan. 9. spill that the system had been flushed and the water was safe to use. The leak came from a holding tank owned by Freedom Industries, whose tank farm was located on the edge of the Elk River, that flows into the larger Kanawha River that moves through Charleston, W.Va.’s capital and largest city.

March 8 was the last day of the state legislative session, and supporters of a bill to improve safety of the water supply gathered in the state Capitol rotunda for a rally. One of the speakers was Maya Nye, a spokesperson for People Concerned About Chemical Safety, who is also active with the group West Virginia Free. She focused her comments on concerns with water contamination specific to women.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Nye after the rally. Here she explains some of the history of the lax laws and regulations of West Virginia’s chemical industry, one of the state’ largest, and the special concerns of women related to toxic pollution.

MAYA NYE: So, West Virginia Free is holding listening sessions for women and water to hear women's concerns for how they've been dealing in the water crisis. Particularly, I think you're probably aware that two days after the water ban was lifted, pregnant women were then told they should not be drinking the water. And the water still has not been determined safe, actually, for anyone. The water has not been determined safe yet by our bureau of public health, so pregnant women, technically still shouldn't be drinking the water until it's determined safe. So we are holding listening sessions to hear how women have been dealing through the crisis and we're talking about it in all of our public forums.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I read something that the CDC actually did use the word "safe" recently, that it was safe to drink the water.

MAYA NYE: The CDC did say that, but the Bureau for Public Health has primacy over safe drinking water; it has to use the word "safe" in order for it to be determined as safe, and it has not yet been determined as such.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So what are you finding? What are these women's concerns?

MAYA NYE: Well, people don't want to bathe their children in it. Pregnant women don't want to come in contact with it. I mean, the amount of time it takes to boil water on a pot to take a shower, to bathe yourself in, it's a very time-consuming process. It completely interrupts daily lives. And I know most people aren't drinking the water. Some people have gone back to bathing with it and laundering with it, but nobody's drinking the water.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Mental health must be just devastated. Has that come up at all, aside from any physical things that might go wrong?

MAYA NYE: This is a trauma that's happened to our community, and it really has been a traumatic event. It's changed people's perception of what they consider safe on a basic human level, so, yeah, it's definitely impacted people's mental health, and their ability to cope in this situation. It's been a very difficult situation.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I talked to one woman, the Cookie Lady, dressed in aqua. Have you met the Cookie Lady?


BETWEEN THE LINES: She's a single woman with a very successful career, and enough money. She's actually renting an apartment in a safe zone. And she just burst out crying twice talking to me. And she doesn't have any kids to worry about, and she's not poor so she can afford to buy the water. And it sounded like ... it must be just unbelievable. I only can relate to it because we were passing out water the first day we were here, and I had one bottle of clean water in the car and we gone for, like, six hours. And I thought, oh my god! I can't ask any of these people if I can fill up my water from their tap!

MAYA NYE: Yeah. They still have bottled water at the Capitol for all the legislators, so I think that tells you something. One of the big issues is that they've just re-introduced tap water into the school systems, which many parents are very unhappy with, because most people are protecting their children in their own way, in their own homes, but once they're released into the school system they don't have the ability to do that. So that's been a real uproar here in the last week.

BETWEEN THE LINES: One of the women I talked to – she was older, I don't know if she had her own grandchildren in the system or what. She was outraged by that. She said, I would give my kids bottled water and "don't touch anything else." And I imagine many people are just giving their kids bottled water.

MAYA NYE: Right, and packing their lunches, because otherwise the school lunches are being made with tap water at this point. So, yeah.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is there anything else specifically related to how this might impact women?

MAYA NYE: Yes, absolutely. I mean, this chemical is one of 62,000 chemicals that was grandfathered in under the Toxic Substances Control Act as not having to have proper toxicological testing, so that we know, actually, how it impacts our health. So as a woman of child-bearing age, I'm extremely concerned about that, because I don't know what coming in contact with this chemical will do to my potentially unborn children. And no studies at this moment in time have been done to actually determine that in any way, shape or form. So it's really scary, and we're really hoping that these toxicological tests will be done. Everyone just wants to know, how is exposure to this chemical impacting our health? So the tests really need to be done. The governor has asked the CDC to perform those tests. I'm not even sure we know who to trust anymore, if we trust the CDC to provide us with the proper information, because they had given us information that was poorly informed to tell us at what level we should be drinking the water ...

BETWEEN THE LINES: When they said one part per million was safe?

MAYA NYE: Yeah, that was, I would say, an ill-informed decision based on tests done on lab rats by Eastman, the company that produced the chemical. I don't necessarily think that's the proper test.

BETWEEN THE LINES: One thing I don't understand is why is it taking so long to get these tests done to show whether or not it's safe. This woman here, who's a nurse and a scientist, was saying maybe we'll find out that it is safe, that it's not that toxic.

MAYA NYE: Mm-hmm. I think funding. And also the fact that it's one of the chemicals that was grandfathered in under the Toxic Substances Control Act. I'm not sure there's a whole lot of political will to have it tested at this point in time.

Find more information about People Concerned About Chemical Safety at

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