Chemical Spill Fouls West Virginia Water, Federal Emergency Declared

Three hundred thousand residents in nine counties in W.Va, including the state capital have gone without tap water since Thursday due to a massive chemical spill into the Elk River. All uses except flushing are off-limits. How much longer is unknown.

"State officials said the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, used in coal processing, seeped from the ruptured storage tank [at Freedom Industries] on Thursday [Jan. 9] into the Elk River, just upstream from the intake pipes for the regional water company," write Daniel Heyman and Emma G. Gitzsimmons.

"The compound...is used to rid coal of impurities (including sulfur) before it is burned to generate power", according to staff writer David J. Unger of the Christian Science Monitor.

The water company announced on Thursday that "its water supply had become contaminated," according to NBC News. The contamination "sent a strange licorice-like smell wafting through the streets in Charleston [pop. 51,400; metropolitan area: 304,214, per Wikipedia] the state capital."

David Gutman of the Charleston Gazette writes, "Smells from the spill were reported early Thursday morning, but Freedom mostly stonewalled media inquiries -- releasing only a bland news release through a public relations firm -- until a 10-minute news conference Friday evening." Gutman goes on to describe the company's apparent poor handling of the incident that has sent "at least 122 people to local hospitals reporting nausea and vomiting according to state officials on Saturday. [NYT]." 

The water company has issued a series of alerts to advise customers not to use the water and to keep them updated as to what is being done to address the crisis. "The current acceptable uses of tap water are toilet flushing and firefighting," it warns.

At least three federal agencies and authorities have entered the scene since President Obama declared a federal emergency,

  • Residents may have access to the 370,000 gallons of potable water that the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought to Charleston and nine surrounding counties. 
  • "A team from the Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents, will arrive on Monday to begin looking into the spill, the board said on Saturday."
  • "Booth Goodwin, the United States attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, announced that his office and 'other federal law enforcement authorities have opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release.” [Jan. 10, NYT]

As for state regulation, the Times notes that "(a)ccording to (W.Va) Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries, which owns the chemical tank that ruptured, is exempt from Department of Environmental Protection inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals, and does not produce them."

As for the economic impact to the region, with all restaurants shut down due to the water restriction, the leader of the local chamber of commerce said that due to the uncertainty of when businesses could reopen, it would not be possible to estimate the economic impact of the spill yet, according to the AP.

Area residents no doubt were none to happy to read Sunday's Washington Post article on the emergency: "(W)ater emergency nears fifth day, with no end in sight."

Full Story: The Wait Continues for Safe Tap Water in West Virginia

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