Is the water safe to drink?

That’s a question no one should have to ask. Particularly, as we Americans like to think, in our own country. But the Flint, Michigan water crises reminds us that, more than 30 years after passage of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, dirty drinking water is a reality for some Americans.

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WV National Guard test water lines after Elk River spill. Photo by WV National Guard

As a (transplanted) West Virginian, I can’t help thinking about the Elk River chemical spill in Charleston that occurred two winters ago. The stories emerging from Flint are eerily the same: the national guard trucking in bottled water, parents terrified to bathe their children in their own home, and the seeming endlessness of it all. Weeks and even months after the Elk River spill, West Virginia families in the eight affected counties still didn’t trust the water. How long will that fear last for residents in Flint? Given the cause – lead leaching from corroded pipes – it sounds like quite a long time.

The contaminated water in West Virginia had a very different cause. MCHM, a chemical used to clean coal, had leaked out of a storage tank and emptied into the drinking water source for 300,000 people. The challenge there wasn’t so much flushing the chemical out of the system, but rather, knowing what levels of remaining MCHM in the water were safe to drink. In my anniversary feature for The Observer of Jefferson County in January 2015, I explored how the outdated federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) contributed to that uncertainty, by allowing tens of thousands of untested industrial chemicals on the market. This winter, I’ve updated that story with news of progress in Congress on reforming TSCA (yes, progress in Congress – that’s news in and of itself). Many Hill watchers believe some legislation actually will pass in 2016, despite a “do-nothing” Congress in an election year. Read about it in my latest feature for The Observer here.

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