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April 17, 2015 : Southern Campus Students Earn High Honors at Research Expo
When the spring Student Research Expo was held at the Athens campus, Southern campus students who competed came away with two top awards: First Place in the Appalachian Rural Health Institute and First Place in the Regional Campus category. The topic: Wild and Wonderful: Risk Communication and Socio-economic Consequences of the West Virginia Chemical Spill.
 
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In January of 2014, more than 300,000 residents living near Charleston, West Virginia awakened to the startling news that their tap water supply was contaminated following a massive chemical spill at nearby Freedom Industries, a company situated along the Elk River that processed and stored chemicals used in the coal industry.
 
As news of the disaster spread across the region and the country, one thing was certain: getting accurate information was a challenge. At the time, Dr. Purba Das, assistant professor of communication studies at the Southern campus, saw an opportunity to provide her health communications students with a real-world example of how a situation such as this can go from bad to worse overnight. 
 
After applying for and securing the prestigious Ohio University Provost Undergraduate Research Fund grant to underwrite the student research project, Dr. Das wanted her students to dissect the communication elements of what went so wrong. “It seemed that there were so many problems from the beginning and it only got worse with each passing day. We all wanted to know how this could happen and what health issues could result from those who had used the contaminated water without knowing,” said Dr. Das.
 
As faculty advisor, Dr. Das wanted the students to use the opportunity as a case study for research. When students Sarah Dillon, Nicole Mollica, Allison Williamson, and Amelia Wilson began the eight-month research effort, they knew some of what had transpired, but were surprised by the critical mistakes made early on. Add to that the perspectives of many of the people who live near the Elk River area who rely on the jobs that the chemical companies provide, often at great risk to their health and safety.  This was not a simple task.
 
For days and weeks that followed, amidst speculation that what was really going on involved some sort of conspiracy to protect violators of environmental regulations by withholding or misrepresenting details of the incident, people simply lost confidence in the company and government representatives who were supposed to protect them. Many people made trips to the emergency rooms of area hospitals to address symptoms of sickness related to the spill. 
 
After conducting some 36 interviews, the students realized people’s perceptions of the chemical spill were as varied as their individual living situations. “We noticed a major discrepancy in the way people of a higher socio-economic status viewed the situation. While some residents relied upon updates they accessed themselves from media sources, others felt like government and company officials should be responsible for bringing the information directly to them. It was tough for us to ignore those differences,” said Sarah.
 
Further complicating matters was the way in which information was disseminated, and the contradictory nature of it all. Information varied according to the source. Televised interviews with residents who lives were directly affected by the spill showed their frustrations had reached a fever-pitch level. “We learned that company officials had setup a website that was being updated with information for the public to access, but they didn’t seem to take into consideration that many people don’t have access to the internet, especially in rural parts of the state.  Many people told us they knew nothing about the site,” Allison said.
 
Indeed, the catastrophic event plagued the area for months. The water was unsafe for brushing teeth, bathing, and cooking. Schools were closed, businesses were disrupted, restaurants had to close their doors to customers, and even hotels were not fully operational. Store shelves were quickly stripped of bottled water, and traffic jams built up as residents were forced fill jugs of water from tankers delivered by the National Guard.
 
As people scrambled to make adjustments in their daily lives, the fears and uncertainty surrounding the spill raged on. “It’s amazing to me that we can send people overseas to construct water wells, while we have people in America dealing with such basic issues as a clean water source.  We should not have to worry that when we turn on our faucet, that there could be something in the water that might harm us,” adds Nicole.
 
For their part, the students examined several aspects of the chemical spill and arrived at some conclusions that could be helpful in the event of another disaster like the one near Charleston, West Virginia.  “It was would be great to have an alert system like the one used for tornado warnings and child abductions so that the community could react more appropriately,” said Amelia.
 
For Dr. Purba Das, participating in the research project was an important learning experience for her students. “It’s not just about the disaster.  I wanted them to see the significance that communication plays in this type of situation and how it can have a lasting impact upon the people who live through it.  I am extremely proud of their achievement,” she said.