West Virginia Water Contamination Crisis

This post is intended to identify professional communication errors in the West Virginia water contamination crisis last January. I recognize that it is easy to criticize in hindsight, but many of these errors could have been prevented.

Background

In early January, a storage tank for chemicals used in coal mining began to leak into the Elk River. The tank was situated just up river of the Charleston water municipality. On January 10th, 300,000 people were notified that their water was unsafe to use for anything except for flushing their toilets (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014).

This event caused businesses to close and schools to shut down. Parents were left worried about their children, pregnant women worried about their health, and everyone worried about the water. The void of uncertainty needed to be filled; this crisis called for a quick response from authorities.

For more background information see these news articles:

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/01/11/us/west-virginia-chemical-spill.html?referrer=

http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/09/us/west-virginia-contaminated-water/          

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/west-virginia-water-emergency-nears-fifth-day-with-no-end-in-sight/2014/01/12/9d0959bc-7b88-11e3-9556-4a4bf7bcbd84_story.html

Authorities Respond

Many authorities responded to this crisis with varying degrees of success. The following is an assessment of some of the primary communicators.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin—Tomblin quickly communicated to the public where to get bottled water, and he called on the public to support each other. But, his short-term solutions did not alleviate public concern for longer-term issues. He gave no timeline, and that left people with a high degree of uncertainty.

In a crisis, communicators should do everything possible to accurately fill the void of uncertainty. Even telling the public about your plan to make a plan is better than nothing. Tomblin should have said something like: “I will meet with my team tonight and we will make a plan we can start implementing first thing tomorrow.”

Overall, Tomblin communicated fairly well. He alleviated the public’s most pressing concern—access to drinking water— and he created a reassuring persona of leadership. However, there were some questions Tomblin alone could not answer.

President of Freedom Industries Gary Southern— People wanted someone to blame, and Freedom Industries was the target.

Southern started his press conference by saying that Freedom Industries did not know how the leak occurred. This did not invite a positive response from journalists or the public. Apparently the cause of the leak was fairly clear, and it seemed like Southern was hedging the responsibility. Southern should have admitted that Freedom Industry was at fault. If he really did not think they were at fault, he should have outlined alternative possibilities.

Southern was further discredited when the West Virginia Environmental Protection Department (EPD) contradicted his account of events. Southern claimed that a work crew from Freedom Industries had found the leak that morning. EPD said their inspectors found the leak first. EPD added that no cleanup effort was underway an hour after Freedom Industries has supposedly found the leak (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014; Achenbach, Jan. 12, 2014).

In crisis communication, if you do not think you are at fault, then you need to provide information about who you think is at fault. But, when you are at fault, it is best to admit it early. Southern did apologize, but people were still left wondering if Freedom Industries would take responsibility.

Siting a long day, Southern tried to end the press conference early. This did not sit well with journalists, who guilt-tripped him into answering more questions (Gabriel, Jan 10, 2014; Achenbach, Jan. 12, 2014). Southern did not prioritize public communication in this crisis, which was a mistake.

However, Southern did attempt to address pressing questions about health effects. According to Southern, the chemical (4-methylcyclohexane methanol) had a low toxicity. He said, “If you look at the technical data avail, it has no effect on aquatic life” (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014).

Southern’s description of the chemical was limited by the information available. Long-term effects of ingesting the chemical were (and currently are still) unknown. The chemical is apparently most dangerous if it is inhaled (TCI America, 2013). However, it is still recommended for people to seek medical attention if it is ingested (TCI America, 2013).  Southern evidently picked the most mitigating information about the chemical (the fact that it has no known effect on aquatic life) to use in his press conference. The information he gave was not out-of-place, but it was convenient.

For more information about 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, view a safety fact sheet at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByrwlYHEv1V7dVh3SV9Cd1Q2enc/preview

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones— Jones was not given much time or space in the media coverage, so it is hard to say how well he actually communicated the issue to stakeholders. Trip Gabriel (Jan. 10, 2014) from the New York Times provided this information:

“Mayor Danny Jones of Charleston said the do-not-drink order was strangling businesses. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to function like this, or not function like this,” he said, speaking as he drove home on Friday evening in uncommonly light traffic and passed a mall he said was nearly deserted.

The mayor and everyone else said their greatest worry was that no one in authority would say how long it would be before the water supply was potable again.”

The journalistic reason for using this information in a news article was to impart a sense of urgency to readers who were not directly affected. For the people directly affected, this information was less than useful, and it likely only added to the fear and the uncertainty in the situation.

West Virginia American Water’s president Jeff McIntyre—The West Virginia American Water Company was responsible for providing water to most of the buildings in the area.

Early in the crisis McIntyre said, “We don’t know that the water is not safe, but I can’t say it is safe” (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014). This statement likely caused more uncertainty. Was the water safe or should people have been really worried about the health effects? Many residents had been drinking and bathing in the water for hours by the time they were informed. McIntyre succeeded in raising the question of safety, but he did not alleviate the public’s uncertainty about their own health. However, McIntyre did make it clear to residents that they should not use the water. He said, “The only appropriate use for this water is toilet flushing” (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014).

McIntyre told reporters that the whole water system needed to be flushed, but he did not provide any additional details about the process. This was probably his biggest communication error. Given McIntyre’s position it is surprising he did not think to provide more information. He should have had access to a contingency plan detailing the steps that are required to flush the system in the event of water contamination. Even if he did not have a timeline, he could have at least provided a set of steps.

Companies that are responsible for providing water to homes should have a plan in the event that the water is somehow contaminated and already in the system. This is an essential element of crisis planning for any major population center. Sharing this plan can mitigate public stress.

West Virginia Attorney Booth Goodwin: Mixed into the confusion was the worry about financial compensation and financial loss. Would property values drop? How could people get financial compensation?

The only official legal information came from Booth Goodwin. As an attorney for West Virginia, Goodwin informed the public that an investigation into the incident was underway (Gabriel, Jan. 10, 2014). This information was fairly well-timed, but it again did not go into much detail. (To be fair, investigations tend to be slow.)

Information about where people could go to file official complaints/reports would have been helpful. It would have given people something proactive to do, and it might have helped with assessing the extent of the damage.

Conclusion

Communicators in this crisis both failed and succeeded. The time they had to respond was constrained. In some cases they were gripped by just as much uncertainty as everyone else. The grades have been given, even if the issue is still not settled. Nobody won, but hopefully we learned something about how to communicate.

For more recent news about this issue see: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/02/07/3263491/west-virginia-water-crisis/

 

Sources

Gabriel, Trip (Jan. 10, 2014). Thousands Without Water After Spill in West Virginia. New York Times. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/01/11/us/west-virginia-chemical-spill.html?referrer=

Achenbach, Joel (Jan. 12, 2014). West Virginia residents cope, with days of water woes still ahead after chemical spill. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/west-virginia-water-emergency-nears-fifth-day-with-no-end-in-sight/2014/01/12/9d0959bc-7b88-11e3-9556-4a4bf7bcbd84_story.html

TCI America. (2013). TCI AMERICA SAFETY DATA SHEET: 4-Methyl-1-cyclohexanemethanol (cis- and trans- mixture). https://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByrwlYHEv1V7dVh3SV9Cd1Q2enc/preview

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