Life is Surreal Since the Chemical Spill

By Linda Frame


“That’s a First World Problem, Mom,” my teenage son told me one day. I can’t remember now what trivial thing I was complaining about. Because that was before the chemical spill.

On Thursday evening, Jan. 9, I was where I am a lot of the time, at the grocery store. I noticed people buying large amounts of water and thought to myself, “I hope they recycle all that plastic.” Easy for me to say. I have curbside recycling and access to clean drinking water. Then I got in my car and learned about the “do not use” order from West Virginia American Water Company because of the chemical that had been allowed to leak into the Elk River, maybe for hours, maybe for days. No one will say. Still.

Life has been surreal since then. CNN trucks in the work parking lot. A strange licorice smell in our water. Being told we can drink it, oh wait! Don’t drink it if you’re pregnant. The river’s clean. Oh wait! We found a second chemical. School will be open tomorrow. Oh wait! It’s closed for the next 5 days.

It’s been hard to get away from social media where we have all been sharing our experiences. “Has your zone been cleared for flushing?” “Are you showering with it?” Even in the parking lot at Kroger a woman was talking about parts-per-million with the guy who helped her out with her groceries. A coworker and I decided it’s like being in a weird sci-fi flick but no one gave us the script.

The day after our water was deemed safe, I decided first to wash my hands in it. I wanted to take a shower. It had been five days of either not showering or heading out-of-county to the YMCA to use safe water. I turned on the bath faucet. Let the water run. Smelled it. Sat on the bathroom floor and looked at the water. It looked normal. Turned the faucet off. Turned it back on. Smelled it some more. The licorice smell faded and I took the plunge. Again, no one had given us the script.

I survived. But every time I shower or get close to the water I wonder what long-term damage it is causing my family. My pets are drinking bottled water. Surreal.

There is desperation to return to Life Before the Spill. Only now have I realized that there is no such thing. There is no going back. There is no trust. We have been violated and lied to.

That’s the silver lining of this catastrophe — it didn’t just go after the poor people. It is affecting those of us who are used to only First World Problems. And now some of those folks, those who might have thought caring about the environment was a hobby or a CHOICE or even something to hide, see things differently now. They are mad at Freedom Industries and the bumbling response of the governor and his Department of Environmental Protection.

Let’s hope they stay that way. If anything is going to change, we need them.

Linda Frame lives in Charleston, W.Va., with her husband and two teenage sons. She is the communications manager for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.


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