Randy Yohe Published

Former TV News Reporter Remembers Making History Covering Water Crisis

A woman with brunette hair and wearing a light blue blazer talks on TV screen in a news report.
Kallie Cart reporting on the January 2014 West Virginia water crisis.
Courtesy of Kallie Cart/WCHS-TV

A chemical spill into the Elk River 10 years ago this week contaminated drinking water for more than a quarter million West Virginians. The water crisis sent people to the hospital, closed schools and businesses and became a national story of corporate distrust and community action. But the news reports began on the local level.

Kallie Cart is now the deputy chief of staff for the state auditor’s office. Ten years ago, she was a reporter and anchor for Channel 8 out of Charleston and one of the lead journalists covering the devastating event.

Cart spoke with Randy Yohe about her water crisis coverage, especially a live interview that went viral.

Yohe: Kallie, you were at WCHS-TV at the time of the water crisis. What were your duties? And how did you first learn there was a water problem?

Cart: At the time of the water crisis, I was a reporter and also an anchor. We were actually getting ready to launch a 5 p.m. newscast. We knew something serious was going on. WCHS is on Piedmont Road, near Freedom Industries, actually, and we could smell the licorice early on in the day. We didn’t know what it was, but we knew something had happened. Then we started to realize something very serious had happened. And then they called a press conference to issue the “do not use” order at about 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m., something like that.

Yohe: What happened next?

Cart: That press conference was with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the water company. They were explaining to folks what they knew had happened at that point, that there was some chemical that had gotten into the water supply. They didn’t shut off the valves leading into the river, and it had gotten into the water supply. And basically they had issued this widespread “do not use” order for folks in nine different counties. That covered hundreds of thousands of people, because they talked about it in households. There were a lot of people, right after dinner time, who were being told your water has been contaminated, do not use.

Yohe: The toxic chemical leak came from a Freedom Industries’ above ground storage tank. Talk about your live interview with Freedom Industries President Gary Southern.

Cart: That was the next day. And it was a press conference, I’m sure you’re familiar with, where everyone is invited to come. We hadn’t heard a word from Freedom Industries since they had poisoned the water. So everyone was obviously anxious to hear what they had to say and to learn more about what had happened, and to learn more about this chemical that we really didn’t know a lot about. So it was a really scary time for people.

This could have been, and it ended up being, our one and only chance to hear from Freedom Industries about what was going on. So I obviously had a lot of questions, as I always did for all stories. To me, it was just a normal press conference. He didn’t really give us much information. But as I said, I was armed with a lot of questions. And so as he tried to wrap things up, I just was like, “well, wait, we’re not done here,” and I think he’d said something to the effect of, “look, it’s been a long day, you know, I’m done with this, it’s time for me to go.” And I was like, “well, it’s been a long day for a lot of people who don’t have water. So I want to know, XYZ.” Then I peppered him with a lot of questions, and then I still had more questions as he was trying to walk away.

I think that’s what everyone talks about, because that was like, hey, get back here, we’re not done. To my surprise, he turned around and came back. I was just doing my job, but that was one of the first times that they started to live stream press conferences. That wasn’t happening a lot 10 years ago. So after it was done, my phone started blowing up and people were texting me and calling me and I’m like, what happened, I’m a little bit confused. So yeah, it just kind of took off from there.

Yohe: It has become a journalistic touchstone in a way, hasn’t it?

Cart: Yes, it really has. And that does make me proud. I mean, to this day, people will say, “oh, I loved your Freedom Industries press conference,” or “you’re the girl from that press conference.” And whenever other journalists say it, it does make me proud, because that’s what we’re supposed to advocate for the people that are in our community. 

Yohe: Your pregnancy came into play in your coverage, did it not?

A man and woman on a TV screen in an interview.
Kallie Cart being interviewed on CNN.

Courtesy of Kallie Cart/CNN

Cart: I was about seven and a half months pregnant during that interview, and during the water crisis. So I was in an interesting position, being not only a journalist working for Channel 8, but also I was a victim and a victim in this kind of rare class of people. Then the next day, they said, “wait, wait, wait, everyone can use the water, except for people who are pregnant.” That was scary. A lot of people who were pregnant were turning to me to find out what’s going on. We just didn’t feel safe, and that was an interesting position to be in.

Going back to the interview, a lot of people were like, don’t mess with a pregnant woman, she was mad. I was like, well, that was how I operated all the time. I mean, I was always prepared for interviews. So it really had nothing to do with me being pregnant and grouchy, I probably was a little extra grouchy, but as the time went on, I realized kind of what was happening. I couldn’t use the water in my own home. I had the licorice smell at my house. It was scary. So I did an interview with ABC News. I think I did a couple of other interviews, talking about being pregnant. I went on CNN.

Yohe: I saw in the interview that Southern was holding a bottle of water.

Cart: That infuriated people because you could not get bottled water. We weren’t prepared. There was a run on grocery stores. You couldn’t find bottled water, you couldn’t find baby wipes. You couldn’t find it, because I was looking for something to wipe my makeup off at night because I didn’t have a way to clean my face or anything else. So you couldn’t find any of these supplies for several days, and eventually the distribution systems got caught up, but of course you’re not prepared for something like that. So yeah, him pulling out a bottle of Aquafina or whatever it was definitely did not sit well.