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Water contamination threatens to drown legislative session

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While some 300,000 West Virginians in parts of nine Southern West Virginia counties wait for the green light to begin using their tap water again, members of the West Virginia Legislature from throughout the state have been standing by for details about whether or not to return to Charleston, where a Jan. 9 chemical leak caused the water crisis.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced at a Jan. 12 media briefing that all state offices would be open Jan. 13, but members of the West Virginia House of Delegates received a letter from Speaker of the House Tim Miley, D-Harrison.

The letter stated Miley and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, were in touch with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and would continue to monitor the 9-county contaminated water situation.

"We will reconvene on Monday at 1 p.m. and in coordination with the Senate, adjourn until a date certain, likely the following Monday," the letter reads. "No other action will be taken on Monday.

"We are waiting on updates to see when normal business can resume. It will take at least 48 hours following the all clear from WVAW (West Virginia American Water Company) for hotels and restaurants to be able to accommodate guests."

Kessler posted to Twitter Jan. 11, "Still monitoring situation. No Senate decision to suspend session." On Jan. 12, Kessler tweeted "Spoke with Speaker & Gov's office tonite. Contrary to reports Legislature will convene tomorrow at 1pm. If our state employees work we work!"

Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, lives within 1,500 feet of the contamination during the session.

"We are down river and across from the leak," Howell said. "When I got up Thursday morning it smelled like chemical. Some are say like licorice." 

Howell said he and three other delegates went to Red Lobster for dinner Jan. 9, but no one was aware of the water problem.

Howell, who is a member of the Homeland Security Committee, said the leak was discovered early in the morning but not reported to the general public as a health threat until much later in the day.

Mineral County Commission President Janice LaRue, who was in Charleston for Mineral County Day at the Legislature, said when her group went to Outback restaurant for dinner they were told they couldn't be served water.

"The waitress told us they couldn't wash their hands or wash dishes," LaRue said in an interview Jan. 11.

LaRue and her friends had no idea the severity of the situation and ordered their dinner.

"We'd been drinking the water and taking showers," LaRue said.

When LaRue returned to the hotel following dinner, papers were under the door telling her not to shower or drink the water.

At home in Piedmont, LaRue said she has had a headache and scratchy throat since she returned.

She called the poison control center and was told her symptoms were that of tainted water, but they should go away since she was not in the contaminated area.

"It didn't quit all night, she said. "It's kind of frightening when you've been in that situation – being subjected to chemical."

She said she was feeling a little better after getting a good night sleep.

Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshier, had a similar experience.

"We live in an apartment one block from the Capitol," Rowan said Jan. 11 from her home in Points. "We were not allowed to drink the water, not allowed to shower, wash clothing or wash dishes. All we can do is flush the toilet.

"This is my 10th year attending session. I never knew a time when session was stopped after it started."

Rowan said she is keeping her cell phone near waiting for a call to return to session.

Howell said he and Delegate Dan Ham rick, R-Harrison, have collected truckloads of water to take to the area where they live as well as water to the Sissonville High School in Kanawha County.

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