By Colleen Rowan
Catholic News Service
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (CNS) — For 72-year-old Ben Dettinger and his wife, Wanda, 70, of Mink Shoals, just north of Charleston, the chemical spill that has crippled the water system in West Virginia’s capital has been a particularly scary turn of events.
"We didn’t hear about it until 7:30 p.m. on Thursday (the day of the spill) and that was three hours after they put a ban on water use; and we had water with our meal," Wanda said. "Of course we were very concerned when we heard the news."
Frantically, they tried to call the West Virginia State Police but were unable to get through. They did get in touch with the governor’s office, where officials told them not to drink anymore of the water. Thankfully, Wanda said, they had not gotten sick.
The Dettingers are part of the population that officials with Catholic Charities West Virginia in the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese are most concerned about in the disaster — the elderly and the poor.
"For you and me, it’s an inconvenience not to have water," said Elizabeth Hardy, the Catholic agency’s western regional director in Charleston. "We can go to the store and buy it. For those who are low-income (or elderly), it’s difficult. … We assisted about 1,400 families Saturday and Sunday (Jan. 11 and 12) with donations of water. All of our services right now are geared to those who have limited income or who are poor."
The disaster occurred when a chemical used in the coal preparation process leaked from a tank at a Freedom Industries facility into the Elk River, which flows into the Kanawha River through Charleston. A ban on using tap water was issued late afternoon Jan. 9, and the following day a federal disaster declaration was issued for West Virginia. About 300,000 people in nine counties have been affected.
Since the disaster began, the Dettingers said they have received outreach from many in the Charleston-area who want to help.
"We have had so many people — neighbors, the church — giving us water," Wanda told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the statewide diocese. "It was a bad thing to have happen, but I have seen so many people lending a helping hand. I am so thankful for all those who helped us, and I just hope this doesn’t happen again."
The Knights of Columbus from the Dettingers’ home parish of the Basilica of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Charleston delivered water to them at their home.
"There’s plenty of water now in Charleston, but there are a lot of elderly people who cannot access it," said Msgr. P. Edward Sadie, rector of the basilica. "The Knights of Columbus brought down a truckload of water from Clarksburg and they have been distributing it to individual families and made it available Sunday after all the Masses. … One of the Knights and I then took water to some of the parishioners we know who are unable to get their own supplies of water."
Through its partnership with a group called Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, Catholic Charities West Virginia has been trying to meet the physical and spiritual needs of individuals and families impacted by the chemical spill, said Mark Sliter-Hays, Catholic Charities’ executive director. The organization mobilized a drive for bottled water, baby wipes, sanitizers and paper products Jan. 10-11.
"A 26-foot truck was filled with these donations from local residents as well as large donations from the Diocese of Youngstown (Ohio) and Sam’s (Club), Lowe’s, Riesbeck’s and others," Sliter-Hays said, adding that the agency’s mobile van in Parkersburg was sent out filled with distilled water, bottled water and sanitizers.
"In the more rural areas, we have assisted two organizations in feeding large groups," he said. "To meet the pastoral needs, a staff member has been requested to provide spiritual care."
He added that his agency planned to apply to Catholic Charities USA for a funding grant to help more of those affected and that it would "continue to monitor the situation."
As the crisis continued, Hardy said people were hoping for an end in sight of the disaster. "There is a little bit of nervousness on when our area will go back to normal," Hardy said. "Our businesses were all closed Friday, schools were closed."
West Virginia American Water Co. announced the afternoon of Jan. 13 that it was lifting the ban on water use in certain areas. The company, with the help of the West Virginia National Guard, had begun flushing the water system.
The Courier-Journal daily newspaper reported Jan. 14 that the contaminated water was heading down the Ohio River and expected to reach Louisville, Ky., sometime Jan. 17.
City officials there said the tainted water should not adversely affect residents but the paper reported that regional officials were not giving "a blanket assurance that the chemical contamination poses no health threats."
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Editor’s Note: Catholic Charities West Virginia is collecting financial donations to support long-term relief. To make a tax deductible gift, call (304) 905-9860 or visit www.CatholicCharitiesWV.org.
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Rowan is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
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