On Thursday January 9, a chemical used in coal processing began poisoning the Elk River in West Virginia. The spill came from a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries and consisted of 7,500 gallons (28,000 litres) of a chemical known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCMH). A total of 14 people exposed to the contaminated water were admitted to the hospital and dozens of people are reported to have gotten sick. Although officials are downplaying human health effects, MCHM is one of thousands of industrial chemicals whose effects on human health haven’t been studied.
A total of around 300,000 people are unable to use the water due to the contamination of the Elk River. As of Wednesday January 15, about 39 percent of West Virginia American Water’s customers were given the green light to drink the water. However the majority (61 percent) still have no access to safe water. Even those who are allowed to use the water may detect a licorice odour and taste which is due to the chemical residue.
The water contamination is having a destructive impact on the economy not to mention the environment. Schools, day-care centers and restaurants have been closed and truckloads of water have to be brought in from out of state.
While Federal authorities, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, have opened an investigation, the spill highlights the gaps in government regulations and poses serious questions about the health of the state’s water supply. One of the biggest questions concerns the location of the facility which is upriver of water intakes.
The chemicals that spilled on January 9 are far from the only source of contaminants in the state. The coal industry has an unfortunate history of polluting West Virginia’s water supply with toxins. Thousands of the state’s pristine streams have been destroyed by a destructive type of coal excavation called mountaintop removal. The worst danger comes from dozens of toxic slurry dams located across the state. As explained in Scientific American, “That slurry is made far more toxic by the heavy metals and other dangerous elements leached from the coal itself.”
Perhaps most surprisingly, the storage facility that spawned the leak has received no government scrutiny in at least a decade. According to many reports, no state regulator has visited Freedom Industries Elk River site since 1991. According to another report there was a visit from state regulators in 2002. One of the reasons cited for the lack of oversight at the Freedom Industries site is due to the fact that it is primarily used for storage rather than manufacturing or processing. It even had a state permit to send storm runoff into the Elk River, which officials described as “routine.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate most aboveground chemical storage for many industries, though companies with permits to discharge chemicals into water are required to do a spill-prevention plan covering those chemicals, according to experts.
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, said late Saturday that it may be time for the state to revisit reporting and other requirements. Environmental advocates are demanding stricter rules to address the gaps in the regulatory framework.
The CARE Campaign, founded by concerned West Virginians, is petitioning the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to terminate West Virginia’s mining enforcement program and implement a program that is accountable to the people of West Virginia.
© 2014, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.
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