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2014 Science News: Tainted Water

A chemical spill in the Elk River in W. Virginia poisons drinking water for hundreds of thousands


Freedom Industries storage facility on the Elk River, photo by CSB

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The new year didn’t start out so well for 300,000 or so residents in 9 counties of West Virginia. On January 9th, 2014, 10,000 gallons of a chemical called crude methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, leaked from a 48,000-gallon storage tank on the banks of the Elk River, part of West Virginia’s water supply, causing poisoned tap water, illness, and widespread distress.

An independent government agency, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) investigated the spill and found two small holes caused by corrosion ranging in size from about 0.4–0.75 in. in the bottom of one tank and another hole in a second tank; “The growing corrosion in these tanks went unnoticed until the bottom of 396 was breached and up to an estimated 10,000 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), mixed with propylene glycol phenyl ethers, or PPH, made their way through the underlying mixture of soil and gravel under the facility and into the Elk River on January 9, 2014.“ Citing data from the state’s Bureau of Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control, the CSB reported 369 patients treated and 13 hospitalized for nausea, skin rashes and vomiting following exposure to the tainted water.

Mixed Messages

The water ban, which precluded all water use except the flushing of toilets, was gradually lifted, culminating 10 days after the spill when Governor Tomblin announced a green light from West Virginia American Water (WVAW) for its 580,000 customers. At the same time, however, the governor hedged, “I’m not going to say absolutely, 100% that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use it.“ Further, the state Board of Health and the WVAW announced an advisory for pregnant women: drink only bottled water.

Cleaning the Spill

The owner of the storage facility is Freedom Industries, currently in the process of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, has been ordered to clear the site. A CSB investigator implicated a general lack of oversight in the spill: “While our investigation is still underway, it has become clear that Freedom Industries did not have a rigorous inspection program for these chemical storage tanks sited close by the Elk River and just upstream from the facility supplying water to hundreds of thousands of people.“ Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. Nor is the problem of water contamination limited to leaks or certain regions. According to the EPA, coal-fired power plants cause 50%-60% of toxic pollution in our country’s water. There are no federal limits on most of the chemicals discharged by power plants.

Back in West Virginia, there is a proposal on the table in a lawsuit involving locally impacted business and Freedom Industries that allows for $2.9 million in a trust fund to be used for public projects such as medical monitoring and water testing. Work is being done in the state legislature, which happened to be in session when the spill occurred, to pass spill response legislation. All well and good, but neither of these efforts tackle the root of the problem: stopping spills before they happen.

W. Virginians Don't Love that Dirty Water

Coal, and the chemicals required to clean, process, and produce it, are big business in West Virginia. Many feel that public safety is being compromised for the sake of the mighty fuel. The Elk River spill is the third major chemical accident in the region—which is known as Chemical Valley—in five years. In a Community Assessment Population Survey that was conducted April 3–8, 2014, 7 out of 10 people in the affected counties believe there is “too little regulation“ of the coal industry. West Virginians are proud of their coal and they need the jobs that the industry provides. They are among the few who actually welcome that lump of coal in their Christmas stockings, but they want it wrapped in reform and oversight.

by Catherine McNiff
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