Alabama Scientists Drive 900 Miles to Fill Information Gaps in West Virginia Water Crisis

January 28, 2014 | 2:05 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

In the early morning hours of January 16th, environmental engineering assistant professor Andrew Whelton and his research team left their University of South Alabama laboratory and drove 873 miles north. The team of researchers, including graduate students Matt Connell, Jeff Gill, Keven Kelly, and LaKia McMillan and environmental engineering professor Kevin White carried with them a van full of equipment to test drinking water for West Virginia residents affected by the January 9 chemical spill. Though they had no obligation—nor any funding—to go, the group was determined to fill the void of scientific information available about the spill’s public health impacts.

A need for scientists in a crisis

University of South Alabama graduate students, LaKia McMillan and Keven Kelley conduct drinking water sampling for West Virginia residents affected by the chemical spill. Photo: Andrew Whelton

University of South Alabama graduate students, LaKia McMillan and Keven Kelley conduct drinking water sampling for West Virginia residents affected by the chemical spill. Photo: Andrew Whelton

In the hours and days following the Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia, there was confusion, conflicting messages, and fear. Citizens and decision makers didn’t know much, but one thing was certain: We needed more information and we needed scientific experts to help us get it. Last week, UCS and others expressed frustration about the lack of access to scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the time when it was most needed to protect public health. Dr. Whelton and his team decided instead to take matters into their own hands and lend their time, resources, and expertise to inform the public.

“Like everyone else, we were watching the story develop,” environmental toxicology graduate student LaKia McMillan explained to me. But as the chemical spill’s impact became apparent and instruction from government officials to residents about the safety of their water proved inadequate, the researchers were motivated to step in. “We saw the lack of information and the lack of scientific expertise reaching the public. We had the knowledge and expertise to help these people and get some of their questions answered,” McMillan said. “We felt that in times of crisis it is our responsibility as environmental engineers and scientists to step up.”

“A lack of trust”

Fifteen hours after leaving Mobile, Alabama, the team of environmental engineers and scientists arrived in West Virginia. To connect with local residents, the team worked with Rob Goodwin, an organizer for the West Virginia Clean Water Hub, a network of volunteers that formed to coordinate community response efforts after the chemical spill. Goodwin helped the team find residents interested in having the water in their homes tested. Goodwin noted that there has been a lack of trust around outsiders coming into communities during the water crisis, but Dr. Whelton’s team approached the situation differently.

Working with the research team, Goodwin was impressed by their respectfulness and sincerity in engaging the local community. “Sometimes scientists come in to do a study and leave,” Goodwin noted, “but it was clear that Whelton’s team was different—talking with people and answering their questions on their own dime. They were clearly coming to help.” Ultimately, the research team only had the time and resources to test 10 of the 80 residences that were interested in the testing. The team also spent a day helping distribute bottled water in one community.

After the 15-hour drive from southern Alabama to West Virginia, students Keven Kelley, Matt Connell, and Jeff Gill unload their van full of water testing equipment Photo: Andrew Whelton

After the 15-hour drive from southern Alabama to West Virginia, students Keven Kelley, Matt Connell, and Jeff Gill unload their van full of water testing equipment. Photo: Andrew Whelton

Testing the water, talking to the people

The research team began testing tap water in homes impacted by the spill. The goal of their scientific tests was to find the answer to one question: What chemicals were citizens exposed to when they turned on their faucets?

West Virginia and federal officials are testing water too, of course. But largely, their testing is done at the hydrant level, that is, they are testing the water that goes into residences, before it runs through residential plumbing systems. Why might testing tap water be different? Dr. Whelton’s team is concerned about the potential for the spilled chemicals to react in home plumbing systems, which could change the public health risks. For example, contaminated water sitting in an older plumbing system could be absorbed into the pipes themselves and potentially leach back into drinking water, long after contaminated water has left the system.

And while he and his team were testing homes, they found another reason for concern about this: Many of the residents they met hadn’t flushed their water systems, as state and federal officials had advised. The residents had heard the recommendation, but they feared exposure to the chemicals by turning on their faucets at all. This raised more alarms for Dr. Whelton’s team, since contaminated water sitting dormant in plumbing systems might have additional public health implications. That’s when they realized it: government officials had failed to address residents’ other concerns—residents had been told to flush their systems but hadn’t been given information about whether this would expose them to chemicals and how they could minimize that exposure.

Bringing scientific information to those who need it

To address this public information gap, Dr. Whelton teamed up with Krista Bryson, an Ohio State graduate student and West Virginia native, to create a video (above) discussing the negative effects of residents’ not flushing their water and disseminate it to the media and the public. The video, along with a list of answers to 10 commonly asked questions from the public, was posted at and, in its first week, had more than 2,000 views on Youtube.

After a week of collecting samples, talking to the media, and meeting with affected residents and decision makers, the research team has returned to Alabama to get back to their lab—working around the clock to be able to analyze and share their results as soon as possible. They hope their work can inform response and recovery efforts and empower people to make more informed decisions about their water in the wake of the chemical spill. Since leaving West Virginia, the team has been contacted by numerous residents asking for help, and they plan to return in one month to present results and hopefully collect more samples.

When asked about her future scientific work, McMillan noted that for the rest of her graduate work and scientific career she’ll remember to “keep the human component in [her] science. I’ll make sure that my future work benefits the greater good.”

I’ll continue to cover the research team’s progress.