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My Turn: A deal was made to turn on the taps

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I turned on the water heater for our house this past weekend, a few days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided the time had come to call Charleston's water "safe."

This, more than a month after 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol leaked into the Elk River and into the city's water treatment plant.

So for the first time since the spill - and at a "non-detect" level of MCHM below ten parts per billion - my family is washing its hands in the stuff coming out of our taps.

In a similar vein, while I'm favoring local restaurants that say they're using bottled water to prepare their foods, I also last week began eating burgers from national chains that probably contained produce washed in city water as well.

The deal I'm making with myself is that if used as a rinsing agent and not consumed wholesale, a few parts per billion in a few drops on my skin or on my lettuce can't pose as much risk as daily glasses of it.

Truth be told, since we began re-opening our spigots, I haven't smelled as intense an odor as I did in those first days and weeks.

But maybe I've been flushing the commodes with it so long that my nose is just used to the odor. Held up for a deep sniff, a cupped handful of warm water still had detectable traces of that telltale licorice smell.

Of course, that was likely in the first tankful after my wife's initial flush of the taps over the weekend. Maybe the water really is getting better.

But we're still not giving the kids baths in it. And we're not using it to brush our teeth.

A few of my friends and colleagues either never stopped or have just began bathing in and drinking it again.

Trying to see their point of view, I posited that at the level of a few parts per billion, you're likely able to find all kinds of disagreeable things in your water.

Still, knowing that it's an organic chemical and that its effects on humans are unstudied, is enough reason to give me pause.

I'll clean with it because the bottled water alternative grew impractical and inconvenient and, yeah, what's flowing out of the faucet isn't as malodorous as it was last month.

But drink it? Heat it up and cook with it? What happens to that stuff in water when it reaches the boiling point?

And then to ingest it after it's been incorporated into my pasta and my rice and my coffee and my tea? Do I really want to take that risk?

I'm of the mind that my decision may never come down to a question of risk so much as a desire to make an issue of its mere presence at any level.

I may yet wear down and accept an "acceptable" amount of contamination in my water.

But the thought that I can settle for less than optimal simply for the sake of convenience and tiring of the fight and being unable to sustain my outrage means I'm willing to let the people responsible off the hook.

It is unsettling and discouraging to believe that I can allow wrong to wait me out as it shifts accounts from one pocket to another and smirks knowing I'll end up watching its deeds go unpunished and accepted by all of us who were affected by its actions.

That's the fine print that comes with the deal I brokered with myself: That I will eventually let what happened go by the boards and learn to live with it.

To the guy a month ago who was counting on things going back to the way they were and right prevailing, this doesn't seem like much of a bargain.

Writer Philip Maramba can also be contacted at 304-348-1703.


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