How a tap water crisis activated Charleston’s small business community.
Jennifer Pettigrew Burns was washing dinner dishes when she got the text from one of her sons’ teachers. “‘Have you seen the news? You have to turn off your water.’”
“I turned the TV on and the president of West Virginia American Water was on the news,” Burns recalls. “I threw everything down—I have four kids, and they were all there—and said, ‘I’m going to go to Sam’s.’ I stuffed my buggy full of water and by the time I walked out the door there was no water left at Sam’s. It was unnerving.”
The leak of the coal-processing chemical crude methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River and the Do Not Use order issued on January 9, 2014, to 300,000 water customers in southern West Virginia exposed layers of regulatory failure: The badly located tanks. The leak, unreported by chemical distributor Freedom Industries until too late. The water utility, underprepared and overconfident. The chemical itself, unstudied as to its human health effects. Federal health officials’ hastily calculated “screening” level. State government, quick to accept the feds’ screening level as “safe” in spite of ongoing reports of dizziness, headaches, rashes, and burns—and curiously incurious as to why flushings conducted to water company specifications didn’t always clear the pipes.
As a Charleston resident, Burns was among those 300,000 in nine counties left without water when the utility realized its filters had failed. And as owner of Ms. Groovy’s Catering, she was among thousands of entrepreneurs whose business was disrupted by the days of water ban and the weeks of public mistrust that followed.
Small business owners are busy, busy people. They work long evenings, most weekends and holidays, and “on vacation,” too. While they create livelihoods for 300,000—more than half of the jobs in this state—they have to take it on faith that government has their backs. But as the costs to them of this incident rose, and big industrial interests lobbied meanwhile to weaken the law that would prevent a repeat, the water crisis of 2014 made small business owners mad.
Initially the Do Not Use order crippled restaurants and other water-dependent enterprises—doctors and dentists, hotels and hair salons, bars and barber shops. “The spill was on a Thursday. We were shut down on Friday and we re-opened on Saturday because we had a lot of food that had already been prepared without using the contaminated water,” says Jennifer Miller, owner of Mission Savvy organic juice bar and vegan cafe. “The health department came in and approved us for that and we got up and running very quickly with bottled water. Of course, being a small business, we rely on operating at full capacity every single day—any one day that we’re set back, where people aren’t coming in or we’re not producing, that’s a serious problem for our cash flow.”
It would be longer before other food service businesses were cleared by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. Jay Thomas, who runs Blues BBQ in South Charleston and Bruno’s bar-restaurant in Charleston, was shut down for four days in one location and a week in the other. Burns says Ms. Groovy’s was shut down for a week, too. Dentists and doctors took big hits. “We had to cancel 65 patients that Friday,” says Dr. Bernard Luby’s Business Manager Cynthia Barnes. Luby practices obstetrics and gynecology at Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston. “And then five surgeries on Monday and Tuesday—this is after people have had their pre-admission testing. It was Wednesday before we were operating relatively normally again.”
That could have been the worst of it. But the lifting of the Do Not Use order with water company instructions for how to flush the plumbing—after four days in downtown Charleston, then zone by zone through January 18—didn’t restore faith in the water. Because residents continued to smell the telltale licorice odor at their taps and to show up at emergency rooms, the end of the Do Not Use period turned out to be just the start of a long-running nightmare for small businesses.
“I think the average consumer thinks there’s somebody out there monitoring this stuff. The reality is, no one is. It’s a wake-up call.” Cynthia Barnes, business manager for Dr. Bernard Luby in South Charleston
First, the pipe-flushing process was sometimes worse than no water at all. “It smelled up the shop so bad,” says Company Bicycle owner Adam Angelona. “I gave it about an hour and started to get sick—I had to close my shop and go home.” Then came the long dearth. “There was no one downtown to even walk in the door,” says Tammy Krepshaw, owner of The Consignment Company on Quarrier Street. “With so many of us still buying water, I think it threw everybody into a no-spending spree.” Nancy Ward of Cornucopia clothing and gift shop on Bridge Road acknowledges January’s extreme cold also played a role. “But during the first few weeks after the chemical spill, our whole neighborhood was like a ghost town—no one was going to restaurants, people weren’t shopping. And the people who could afford to left town so there was just nobody out and about.” Restaurants had to keep using bottled water. “Our customers trust that we are not going to contaminate the food or the juices or anything, which means we can’t turn the faucet on—and we don’t want to because we don’t trust it either. It’s such a hassle,” said Mission Savvy’s Miller six weeks in.
More businesses began to be affected. “I grow things,” says Kelly O’Neill Crane of Kanawha Valley CSA subscription farm. “There’s been a lot of concern amongst my customers about what the effects of irrigating crops with the contaminated water would be for human health and safety. And for my brand, the perception is equally as important as the reality.” Crane started seeds in mid-February and had to find alternative water for irrigation while she figured out her next steps.
And other parts of the state got worried. “We were getting five or six calls a day from tourists, asking, ‘Is your water alright?’” says Jeanne Mozier of Travel Berkeley Springs. Kara Dense, executive director of the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau, was wary. “People come here to enjoy our natural beauty and they want to know that the Greenbrier River is clean. I think this could definitely have an impact on the overall mindset when people are starting to plan their trips,” she said a few weeks after the leak. Mark Lewis, president of the Great Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, says, “The national headlines were not, ‘Water Crisis in Part of West Virginia’—they were, ‘Water Crisis in West Virginia.’ A lot of my counterparts across the state are concerned that we may see some fallout.”
Early on, Marshall University’s College of Business and Economic Research estimated the costs to water-dependent businesses at $61 million. That was for water-dependent businesses only, during just the first four days of the water ban—but as it turned out, the costs spread across the community and accumulated over many weeks.
“People assumed if you weren’t shut down, you weren’t affected,” says Ward, at Cornucopia. “But it had a huge effect on all business.” She estimated her losses would run to the tens of thousands. Same for Krepshaw at The Consignment Company. Kanawha Valley CSA planned to expand from 25 to 50 subscribers this year, but “half of last year’s subscribers said they aren’t interested in continuing if we’re using the tap water,” Crane says. “That’s a $10,000 hit, without counting the costs of, say, a pump (for nearby creek water) and filter.” Mission Savvy got strong loyalty from its customers. “But we’ll have several thousand dollars just in water filters in both our locations,” Miller said in February. “And it’s costing money and time in finding water and extra staff time with having to boil water to wash dishes—there are a lot of extra operational activities now that are extremely time consuming.” Angelona figured Company Bicycle lost $5,000 to $10,000. Barnes’ quick estimate of the loss to Luby’s practice was $25,000.
Things went downhill after a February 5 news conference at which Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, flanked by representatives of every state and federal agency involved in the crisis response, said, “Science says the water is safe.” Comforting as it could have been, the pronouncement came in stark contradiction to the experience of residents—some of whom could still smell the chemical in their homes, some of whom were still showing up in emergency rooms. Worse, Tomblin’s statement was contradicted by the scientist from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “We’re not really talking about if the water is safe—we’re talking about, is the water appropriate for use?” The new charge on the word “safe,” combined with a wave of closures where schools had been flushed unsuccessfully, made people even madder.
“This freaked me out—that something like this could really harm my children, take away my livelihood and the livelihoods of so many people in our area. It just woke me up.” Jennifer Pettigrew Burns, Ms. Groovy’s catering
“Why wasn’t anything in place to begin with? And how long were we drinking this? I had lots of questions,” Krepshaw says. Ellen Bullock, a Charleston property manager, was incensed. “People want small government and talk about overreach, but this is why government exists—regulations protect us from greedy people and stupid people. Three hundred thousand people without water and you’re worried about overreaching?” Ward had already been angered by a January 19 meeting Tomblin held to draft legislation in response to the leak. “It was kind of a slap in the face that the governor’s stakeholder meeting didn’t include small businesses and people concerned about the environment.” Among the recommendations Tomblin’s bill incorporated from those stakeholders was a motley slough of tank types and locations it proposed to exempt from regulation. “Where were the people who should have been there? We are the stakeholders,” Ward says. “I have not been politically active, but I’m tired of not having a voice.”
Pleading One’s Own Cause
Industrial explosions and collapses and contaminations are part of life in West Virginia. But this one, occurring as it did right in the state’s capital at the start of the 60-day legislative session, put strong pressure on lawmakers to address the underlying regulatory issues. It also created a perfect opportunity for citizen engagement in the lawmaking process.
As a “spill bill” progressed through the Legislature—Tomblin’s bill, amended and quickly passed by the Senate, then routed through three committees in the House of Delegates—Burns and Ward got together. They organized what they called a “sign-on letter”—a petition, really, an appeal to the Legislature to make laws that would truly protect families and merchants. In just over a week, they had more than 100 signatures. Miller, who signed it, had been too busy keeping Mission Savvy afloat to take any political action. “I was really thankful this petition came my way because I wanted to speak out somehow,” she says. Krepshaw is not usually politically active. “But I’ve felt very violated. I signed the petition out of frustration and a feeling that something needs to be done.” Crane, who worked previously in the Legislature, says she tries to stay neutral politically but decided to sign the petition, too. “My customers are happy to see me speak out about this.”
The petition was delivered to the Legislature and governor on February 17. “As business leaders in West Virginia, we deeply understand the importance of preventing over-regulation that can inhibit growth and prevent new businesses and tourism from coming to the state,” reads the measured document. “Some regulation, however, is necessary to protect our business interests and promote confidence in the state’s infrastructure . . . We write to ask you to correct this regulatory shortfall to instill confidence in the tourists, businesses, and talent that we need to come into to the state.”
The petition asked lawmakers to require regulators to police aboveground chemical storage as stringently as they do underground tanks, and to require large suppliers of drinking water to maintain back-up sources. It asked them to make regulators identify potential pollution sources upstream of drinking water intakes and create response plans for spills of each. And it asked them to implement outstanding 2011 U.S. Chemical Safety Board oversight recommendations.
Burns and Ward lobbied delegates through February and the early March end of the legislative session to ensure the legislation addressed those concerns. “So many of us are doing this. We call this our ‘night job,’” Ward said at the time. As the session progressed, Burns’ feeling that residents and small businesses were overlooked was reinforced. After a long March 2 House Judiciary Committee meeting, she said, “Listening to the delegates’ discussion, the thing I hated about the conversation was it was all around minimizing the effect it would have on industry. Rarely did I hear any conversation around the effect this chemical leak had on the citizens in the nine counties or how bad water affects the citizens in all of our counties.” In a committee meeting the next day, the coal industry obtained exemptions from certain fees.
“We’re sort of in a Catch-22 position. Because when we try to be proactive, we’re being anti-business, and when we’re reactive, we’re not doing enough.” Kristen Boggs, Department of Environmental Protection Association General Counsel, during a February 13 House Judiciary Committee meeting
Burns also lamented what she felt was a lack of organizational representation for small businesses. “We’re operating in our own niches,” she says. “We don’t have the resources to organize like a large chemical company or a wealthy coal company. We don’t have the resources to hire high-priced attorneys to advocate for us. It’s disappointing when the organizations that are supposed to advocate for us pass on it.”
Which organizations are those? One that business owners mentioned was the Charleston Area Alliance (CAA). Its policy arm is the Charleston Regional Chamber of Commerce. CAA President and CEO Matthew Ballard points out that one-third of the Charleston Chamber’s board of directors has to be businesses with fewer than 50 employees—that’s 10 of 30, not counting the chairman. In response to the crisis, the Charleston Chamber supported legislation to provide loans to small businesses that were affected, among several measures Ballard lists, and worked with lawmakers to close loopholes in existing regulation.
Another organization mentioned by small business owners was the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. The state chamber did not take a position on the bill, according to President Steve Roberts; rather, individual industries took their own approaches, he says. He added that 80 percent or more of state chamber membership is small businesses and that no member called him about taking a position on the legislation.
Ward acknowledges these organizations’ efforts, but also says she knows based on personal contact with people inside that conflicting member interests limit what they can do. “We would like to see organizations like that be more vocal about issues that concern business sustainability and the environment,” she says. “I don’t even know where they stand.” She wants an organization that will give voice to the small business owners who live in the communities where they work and want to put environmental and social matters in their communities alongside profit. She wants more balance in the dialogue. “Two meetings ago, on the bill, there were 17 people there from industry and there were five from citizen and environmental groups. We are outnumbered, out-dollared, and outgunned.”
Due in large part to vigorous citizen lobbying, the final bill included all of the measures the petition sought, to some degree: stronger regulation of aboveground tanks; water utility planning in several areas; and formation of a commission to review and report by December 2014 on implementing the Chemical Safety Board recommendations. “It’s a good start,” Ward says.
Epilogue: West Virginia Sustainable Business Council
Out of crisis comes change. Before the legislative session was over, Burns and Ward made plans to tap the small business energy that was released by the event. “It’s time the politicians listen to small business. We bring in huge numbers as far as tax revenue and jobs,” Ward says. “We’re restaurants, retailers, doctors, dentists, therapists, manufacturers, heating and cooling—they say coal keeps the lights on, but we do everything else,” she says. “I’m not saying chase coal out, but everybody has to be a good neighbor and make the health and safety of people in this state their number one priority.”
As this issue went to print, Ward and Burns had begun creating a West Virginia Sustainable Business Council (WVSBC) as well as a Charleston chapter of the organization. They didn’t know what issues they would tackle first but, as an organizational member of the American Sustainable Business Council, the WVBSC would support raising the minimum wage, financing the development of clean energy, and reforming the federal Toxic Substances Control Act. The latter, if made stronger, could have made toxicity information about crude MCHM readily available and prevented the weeks of confusion about the safety of the drinking water. “I want to keep our focus narrow around sustainable business practices,” Ward says. “I don’t think it has to be Democrat or Republican—these issues go across the board and apply to everybody.”
Burns came out of the legislative the session hopeful. “One thing that’s come of this is there are a lot of people now who are politically active who never would have been and I think that’s what it’s going to take to have systemic change. My hope is this time next year not only is there a Sustainable Business Council chapter in Charleston, but there are chapters throughout the state.”
Written by Pam Kasey
Photographed by Nikki Bowman