CHARLESTON – A town hall meeting about the recent water contamination that has gripped the Kanawha Valley this month showed that the issue isn’t going away anytime soon.
“We are the first human beings this chemical has ever been experimented on,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. “We are laboratory animals in a way.
“Folks who show up at emergency rooms or doctor's offices are the tip of the iceberg.”
On Jan. 9, an estimated 10,000 gallons of curde MCHM leaked into the Elk River, just upstream from West Virginia American Water Company’s intake facility. More than 300,000 residents in nine counties were without tap water for days, and many still are wary of using the water.
Gupta and environmental activist Erin Brockovich both said there still are too many unknowns about the situation.
“Trust your own judgment,” Brockovich said during the town hall meeting sponsored by WCHS-TV. “All of us are feeling this way. Who do you believe?
“I don’t need anyone to tell me to trust them when I can see and smell something is wrong.”
Gupta said there is no way yet to prove a direct link between health issues people have reported and the chemical. That’s why he wants to see medical monitoring done.
Brockovich said regulation without enforcement is “pointless.”
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection secretary said he knows trust will have to be earned over time.
“We respect it’s going to take some time,” Randy Huffman said. “We can’t talk our way into it. We have to demonstrate it with our actions.”
Both Brockovich and Gupta said residents should push for medical monitoring efforts.
"What we need is the ability to start a surveillance program today,” Gupta said. “We needed it two weeks ago."
“West Virginia could set an example for the rest of the country on how to respond to municipal emergencies," she said, adding that the situation has been handled poorly by Freedom Industries, WVAWC and state officials. Freedom and WVAWC officials were invited to take part in the televised town hall meeting, but they declined.
"Your state has a golden opportunity to stand up and provide surveillance," said Brockovich, who led her own town hall meeting days after the leak first happened. "Until your legislators get out of bed with industry, this is going to continue to happen.”