Businesses turn to bottled water [Charleston Daily Mail, W.Va. :: ]
(Charleston Daily Mail (WV) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 30--Gunnoe Farms Sausage and Salad has been a staple in the Charleston area since it was founded in 1949.
Just weeks ago, all was well at the Oakridge Drive facility, which produces and distributes its products to stores across 17 states. All that was turned upside down Jan. 9 when the plant lost access to one of its most vital resources: clean, contaminant-free water.
"It's simple. Unless we come up with a solution to where we can use this water, I'm not going to be here in a few weeks," owner Joy Gunnoe said Friday. "I've got some 20 families that rely on me to provide their paycheck every week, and it blows my doors off that I may lose 65 years of that because of some company that files for bankruptcy."
Like many other residents and business owners affected by the crude MCHM spill from one of Freedom Industries' aboveground storage tanks along the Elk River near Charleston, Gunnoe is hesitant to heed officials' word about the safety of the odorous water being piped into her plant.
She recently hired an outside contractor to test contaminate levels coming from the tap at the company's plant. The lab results showed "non-detect" levels of the coal-cleaning crude MCHM chemical in the water, but Gunnoe's own tests solidified her belief that the water is unfit for use in her product.
"We cooked and experimented with a pot of potatoes yesterday," Gunnoe said. "Starch always rises to the top, but it was almost a jelly-like substance. I did one experiment with a pot of potatoes and I threw it in the dumpster."
Gunnoe said everything that was manufactured the day of the spill was thrown out. She also scrapped food produced the day earlier out of an abundance of caution.
"I threw 18,000 pounds of product to the dumpster," Gunnoe said. "Eight thousand pounds of it was my own choice, because I'm not going to chance selling a food with contamination in it with my last name on it.
"We're using the water for cleaning processes only, but to use it for cooking or use in products -- I just don't feel comfortable with that," she said.
She sets out every morning to purchase water by the pallet from area stores. She said her pickup truck can only haul about a pallet of water at a time, and the process takes about three hours every day.
"You've got to learn how to do business in a whole new way," Gunnoe said. "You just don't realize how much you take your water and the purity of your water for granted."
Taking no chances
Gunnoe's manufacturing plant is just one of an untold number of businesses in the nine-county area that saw its profits slashed by the water shutdown and now continues to take on extra expenses in order to avoid using tap water.
As of Jan. 18, all water in the area affected by the chemical spill had been deemed "safe" by West Virginia American Water Co. and federal, state and local health officials.
Areas were lifted from the do-not-use water ban after tests consistently detected less than one part per million of crude MCHM, a threshold set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based upon what little was known about the chemical after the spill.
Still, many residents don't trust the safety of their tap water and a growing number of area restaurants are marketing their use of alternative water sources as a way to ease concerns among those still-skeptical customers.
Tudor's Biscuit World is exclusively using bottled water for food preparation and coffee-making in all 32 restaurants on West Virginia American Water's Kanawha Valley distribution system.
"We will not take any chances whatsoever with contaminating any product," said Becky Lies, president of Tudor's sister company, Gino's Distributing. "We treat our customers just like we would treat our family."
Tudor's Vice President Greg Atkinson said even after the do-not-use order was lifted, the company decided that bottled water would be used in all affected locations for the foreseeable future.
"Our taste is what our customers expect," Atkinson said. "We talked to some of our customers, and after the first few days, our customers were still expressing an unease about tap water. So based on our customers, we continued to use the bottled water and have not set a specific date for when we're going to stop doing that."
Lies is thankful for the company's decision in light of events that occurred after the do-not-use order was lifted.
That included the CDC's recommendation that pregnant women not drink tap water until MCHM is no longer detectable in it, and the later revelation from Freedom Industries President Gary Southern that another chemical, PPH, was mixed in with the chemicals in the storage container that leaked.
"In our opinion, if it's not safe for pregnant women, it's not safe for anyone," Lies said. "Until we know for certain the water is absolutely contamination-free, we won't be using it."
She said crews in the affected restaurants have been trained on new procedures for using only bottled water. She also said the company will continue to incur the extra expense of using bottled water until the water is completely contaminant-free in order to guarantee customers' safety.
People Before Profits
Some restaurants are getting creative in their efforts to maintain quality products. Charleston coffee shop Moxxee tweeted a photo Friday showing purified water being pumped from two 5-gallon jugs into the store's in-house water filter.
"People Before Profits," the tweet said. "Pumping bottled H2O to filtration system to make all coffee, tea & steam to texture latte milk."
Keeley Steele, co-owner of Bluegrass Kitchen, Tricky Fish and Frutcake on Charleston's East End, said she and her husband have improvised a "three-part system" to make sure purified water is used whenever possible.
Each restaurant has 160-gallon water tankers that are filled in St. Albans several times a week that are used to clean floors and walls -- though she said the recent cold spell has frozen them solid.
The restaurants are also buying bottles of water from Tyler Mountain Water and their food supplier to use for preparing food, wash tabletops and countertops and serve to customers.
"It's an amazing amount of work to do this in the fashion we're doing it, but it's our job to do it," Steele said. "It's important we make people comfortable when they eat here and I think people are tired of washing their dishes with bottled water. It's just a pain."
Steele added her restaurants have seen a surge in business this week due to Charleston's Restaurant Week promotion, and customers have been helping waiters and waitresses recover their losses with generous tips in response to the "Turn Up the Tips" campaign.
Born and raised
Gunnoe's plant was able to return to limited production last Thursday and send out its first shipment since the chemical spill -- a truckload of meat salad -- on Friday. Gunnoe is working to secure an FDA-approved water tanker to pump water into the manufacturing plant for now.
Gunnoe said all her problems would be solved if there were a filtration system that could filter any traces of crude MCHM out of the water.
What's most frustrating to her is that officials have not provided any information to businesses regarding filtration systems or contaminated water's effects on boilers, pipes and other industrial equipment.
"We've got some really fine minds in the USA and no one's said a word if there's a filtration system out there," Gunnoe said. "There's no questions that have really been answered that are reassuring people."
Still, she said, she doubts the plant could remain economically viable for the long-term with the extra cost of bringing in water from offsite.
"I hope it's not a permanent fix, or if it is, I'm definitely going to have to raise the price of my product and then I won't be able to compete in the marketplace," Gunnoe said. "If it becomes permanent, I'm gone. This company will move out of the state. I'll have no choice, and it will be a shame after 65 years if that will happen.
"I was born and raised in this city and my friends and family live here, so if I end up having to move out of state, I'll probably end up selling it, frankly," Gunnoe said.
Contact writer Marcus Constantino at 304-348-1796 or
marcu...@dailymailwv.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amtino.
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