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WV Chemical Spill: A Look Back On Lessons Learned

It’s been two years since 7,500 gallons of the industrial chemical MCHM (used for cleaning coal) leaked into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia, leaving up to 300,000 people in nine counties without drinkable water. In fact, the water was unusable for anything, including cooking, laundry and bathing. For five days, no water within roughly 100 miles of the leak site was safe. 700 people called poison control due to toxin-related illness, and over 400 received treatment at hospitals after suffering from rashes, nausea, cough, and vomiting.

The main reason for the leak was the massive 60 year old storage tank that wasn’t maintained and had an emergency dike also in need of repair. Crews worked for days to flush the system, but the water isn’t 100% chemical free yet, and the effects of the spill are still being felt two months later. So for those of us without any direct control over the water system, what can we do to keep our families safe when the unexpected becomes reality?

  1. Don’t Assume that Water Systems will Always be Safe

Even the smallest cities have remarkably complex water infrastructures with water treatment plants, municipal storage tanks and miles and miles of pipeline. And while we very rarely think about where our tap water comes from, in the event of an emergency there are many hazards that can render this water source unusable, from broken pipes to contaminated water. Always keep a minimum of three days’ supply (that’s one gallon per person per day) on hand for emergencies.

  1. Protect your Water from Chemical Contamination

Once you have water storage in your home and it’s sealed up tight, it seems like it would be safe from contamination already, but it is still surprisingly easy for chemicals to find their way where they’re not welcome. Old 2-liter bottles and even some food-grade plastics are permeable over long periods of time, meaning that prolonged exposure to a liquid spill.  Make sure that your water containers are non-permeable (HDPE #2 plastic), and store them away from chemicals just to be sure.

All types of water storage should be also checked and recycled every 6-12 months, to prevent stagnation or contamination. Make sure to maintain your water supply on a regular basis.

  1. Always have a back-up method of water purification

While filtration is not always effective, most of the time it is the best way to acquire safe drinkable water. Depending on the type, quality and size you choose, filters and pumps start at $50-$100. Chemicals are the hardest (and sometimes impossible) to filter, but some chemicals can be purified by distillation or diluted to drinkable levels with good carbon filtration. However, in the event of chemical spills, always be sure to check with local water or city authorities first before you filter and drink chemical contaminated water.

Another option along with pumps and filters, is to prepare storage tanks for rainwater harvesting. This skips the middleman altogether, and with the possible exception of air pollution, guarantees 100% pure drinking water.

  1. Preparation Doesn’t Have to be Difficult

Water (and general emergency) storage is not always convenient or cheap at the outset, but unlike the Ants in Aesop’s fable (Grasshopper and the Ants) who slave away all summer, it doesn’t have to be difficult or take all of your time. Preparation actually can be quite simple if taken a step at a time: a water container here, a few extra cans of food there, matches and flashlight battery storage. Etc. Because every 2 liter bottle of water stored away in West Virginia made a world of difference when it counted.

  1. “Just in Case” is Still Important

If we can turn on the tap water right now and make orange juice or take a shower or do a load of laundry, how lucky we are, and how important it is to prepare for life’s uncertainties. The time to prepare for “just in case,” and have adequate water storage for emergencies is now. And even if you never have to use it, “just in case” is still essential because it could save your family worlds of hurt.

Bottom line: by the time something happens, it’s too late to get ready for it. So get prepared now.

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