A WaterFest Helps West Virginia American Water Heal Wounds After A Contamination Incident

A WaterFest helps West Virginia American Water heal wounds after a leak from a chemical company contaminated Charleston’s water supply.
A WaterFest Helps West Virginia American Water Heal Wounds After A Contamination Incident
West Virginia American Water employees Richard Bishop, left, and Mike Staley help children repair a “leaky” pipe during WaterFest.

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While dealing with the fallout from a large chemical leak near its source water intake, West Virginia American Water decided the best response was transparency.

That’s why last August, for the first time since 1986, the company opened its Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant in downtown Charleston to the public in a WaterFest event.

“There’s been a lot of interest from the public about what goes on inside the walls of our plants,” says Laura Jordan, the external affairs manager. “We thought that if people could see for themselves what happens in a plant and meet the people behind the process of treating their water, it may start to ease some of their concerns.”

Finding the positive

Those concerns arose after Jan. 9, 2014, when a tank owned by Freedom Industries sprung a leak, discharging more than 10,000 gallons of chemicals into the Elk River near the treatment plant’s only intake. The coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM got into the system and contaminated the tap water for 300,000 people.

One positive amid the negative was that citizens began asking questions about what truly comes out of their taps. “The feedback we received from customers over the six months after the spill is that they are increasingly interested in how water is treated and delivered,” says Jeff McIntyre, company president. “WaterFest was an excellent opportunity for anyone interested in learning more about our drinking water and experiencing the human side of water.”

Family friendly

The free festival and open house offered water treatment plant tours, educational demonstrations, children’s activities, face painting and refreshments. A Splash Zone for children featured water games, an inflatable water slide and slip-and-slides.

Young attendees could help “fix” a water leak, climb on heavy equipment and vehicles, learn how a water meter works, and use a fire hose to help extinguish a “fire.” Community partners including the Charleston Fire Department, Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences, West Virginia Rivers Coalition and Dollar Energy Fund shared space in a Water Wise tent with more activities and information about how they work together in the world of water.

“We registered around 300 participants, which is right where we were aiming for attendance,” says Jordan. “All received a WaterFest passport and earned a sticker for each educational opportunity they participated in. When they received five stickers, they got a water bottle.

“The kids were all very excited, and most participated in everything. A lot of families with kids also took the plant tour, which we weren’t expecting. It was great to see so many people interested in learning.”

Tough questions

Some attendees did have pointed questions for the plant staff, mostly about the safety of water seven months after the chemical leak. Even though Crude MCHM was no longer detectable in the water system, some still didn’t feel comfortable drinking tap water.

“We did have some tough questions, but we answered them as thoroughly as we could,” says Jordan. “The biggest take-away we tried to offer was an appreciation for the value of water — normally something people take for granted. You can turn on your tap and get it for a penny per gallon, but there’s a lot behind it.”

Community support

West Virginia American Water, a private company that operates nine plants in the state, works hand-in-hand with public entities and municipal decision-makers to ensure clean potable water. Those partnerships were on display at WaterFest, as the Charleston Fire Department offered children the chance to extinguish a “fire” while the local sheriff’s department offered a lesson in fingerprinting.

“We want to be involved in the community and enjoy the opportunities to let people know what we do,” says Jordan. “We’ve been asked to talk with scout troops, give classroom presentations and set up educational displays at charitable functions like run/walks and outdoor festivals. We try to drive home the idea that water shouldn’t be taken for granted and should be conserved.”

Future events

Encouraged by the attendance and positive feedback, the company is considering making WaterFest an annual event shared among its nine facilities. Jordan hopes other treatment facilities follow suit.

“For us, WaterFest was born out of a negative situation, but it turned into a terrific opportunity to interact with our customers and really give them the chance to meet the human side of their water,” she says. “I’d definitely encourage others to do it often and would be happy to answer any questions or assist any plant that wants to do outreach. It’s certainly worth all the time and effort. People want to learn.”   


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