CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Just hours away from a West Virginia city plagued for weeks by chemical-tainted, undrinkable tap water, H20 enthusiasts will sip municipal waters like fine wine in search of the world's best.
The supplier for the state capital of Charleston hasn't entered the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition since 2010, though the region's major municipal supplier, West Virginia American Water, won in 1991 and 1994. This year, the water supply has gotten only negative attention: a coal-cleaning agent spilled into the river feeding the water treatment plant for 300,000 people across nine counties, turning water from the taps a shade of blue-green and giving it a sweet, licorice odor.
Residents flushed their systems, and most have been cleared to drink from the faucet and use the shower again. But the negative perception persists.
"I don't want this to be taken the wrong way, but I don't think I want to taste Charleston water right now," said veteran judge Mark Kraham, news director at WHAG-TV in Hagerstown, Md.
Charleston won't be among the 125 entrants from around the U.S. — including reigning champ Emporia, Kan., which entered for the first time last year. But the city will be a prime topic during a panel discussion Friday on protecting municipal water supplies.
The judges approach their task much like connoisseurs of other liquids, rating the entries on appearance, aroma, taste, mouth feel and aftertaste. Waters are placed in four categories: tap, bottled, purified drinking and carbonated, the latter's bubbly essence being what Kraham calls "the dessert."
Bottled samples can be tricky to differentiate, while municipal waters are complicated by regional differences. For instance, pine needles and oak leaves can have a unique flavor. Then there's those with a bit too much chlorine — "almost like drinking a glass of swimming pool," Kraham said.
A daylong exercise in drinking water means inevitable trips to the restroom. The key is to sip and not guzzle, said Kraham, who joked he returns to judge the competition every year either because he has a trained palate or organizers are looking for someone to drink water for an entire day.
"I am still trying to figure out if I am really a water connoisseur or simply an aquaholic," Kraham said.
Kidding aside, organizers have tried to clear up misconceptions about whether the local water in the competition's home of Berkeley Springs was safe, even though it's 270 miles and a mountain divide away from Charleston, said competition founder Jeanne Mozier.
Despite much testing and flushing of the tap water system, officials have been reluctant to call the water "safe," instead using phrases such as "appropriate to use." Many families are sticking with bottled water for various purposes and remain worried about water quality in their children's schools.
The panel discussion on Charleston's water problem will highlight the need for clean tap water everywhere, Mozier said, noting the audience would be packed with industry participants, including municipal bottlers.
"Sometimes bad news gets your message out there," Mozier said. "Across the board, it's a short-term nightmare, but I'm hoping that it's a long-term commitment by people to finally get it together and make sure this doesn't happen anymore."