More preparation could have mitigated effects of West Virginia chemical spill

February 3, 2014

For five days in January, hundreds of thousands of residents in the area of Charleston, West Virginia had no access to safe tap water. Even now, as the incident clears, their safe access is still being questioned.

The reason? A massive chemical spill that polluted the Elk River with at least 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane (MCHM), a chemical often used by the coal mining industry.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, residents first noticed that there was a problem when they reported a licorice-like odor emanating from a nearby chemical site owned by a company called Freedom Industries, that was later found to be the source of the spill. As it turned out, one of the tanks holding the chemical had ruptured, releasing the contents into the river.

Unlike incidents of bacterial contamination, residents could not solve the problem by boiling their water. Any usage other than toilet flushing required bottled water. Ultimately, the West Virginia National Guard was required to bring in additional supplies when local stores sold out of bottles.

"Brushing your teeth is a pain," Sean McCormick, an attorney who lives in Charleston, told ABC News at the time. "You really don't realize how great it is to have running water every day until you don't have it."

Cleanup efforts mostly successful, but still ongoing

Five days after the water ban was put in place, officials announced that residents in most zones were able to use tap water again after extensive testing was done to ensure that the levels of MCHM had fallen below legal limits.

This did not immediately apply to everyone, however. Pregnant women were still advised not to drink tap water, which Dr. Vika Kapil, a senior official with the Center for Disease Control (CDC), said was done "out of an abundance of caution."

Though MCHM is not thought to be lethal, authorities warned that it could cause vomiting, nausea and irritation. However, some scientists admitted that not enough is known about the chemical. A few even admitted that the CDC was not sure how much a person could safely ingest. The agency was forced to rely on a study that investigated how the chemical affected rats, and even then, some scientists questioned the results. Generally, the agency assumes that an amount below one part per million will be safe.

"MCHM wasn't on anybody's radar screen until this accident," Daniel Horowitz, a member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, told the Los Angeles Times. He added that many people give little thought to the chemical facility because the tanks are "very ordinary looking, just storage tanks on a concrete pad."

Uncertainty surrounding spill highlights importance of proper preparation

Even as cleanup of the spill continues, there are still questions being raised about what happened, and how it will affect the people in the area. More recent reports suggest that another chemical, PPH, leaked into the water supply but was not immediately identified. And some have wondered if the legally permissible amounts of these chemicals have actually proven to be safe for human consumption.

What is clear is that neither the company responsible nor the surrounding community was prepared to handle such an event. 

First, as noted by an article on Bloomberg Businessweek, there are mysteries surrounding the owners and operators of Freedom Industries. It was founded in 1992 by Carl Kennedy II, who had been convicted of selling cocaine in a major scandal several years before. When he went to prison in 2006, his friend, Dennis Farrell, apparently took over the company.

The company's ownership has only gotten murkier from there. Businessweek reported that Cliff Forrest, founder of Rosebud Mining in Pennsylvania, acquired Freedom Industries only a few days before the spill occurred.

These questions of leadership suggest that the company may not have been nearly prepared enough to prevent a spill like the one that occurred. But it wasn't just Freedom that had problems. The public also seems to have been unprepared, with the state government facing questions about its approach to spill prevention and handling of the situation. Even though it has still not yet been established whether a certain level of chemicals was safe, the state gave the go-ahead to use water only a few days after the incident first occurred. It was not until later that new revelations about additional chemicals—like PPH—occurred.

Given that uncertainty still surrounds these chemicals, it is crucial that the river and the surrounding area is completely remediated. State officials and the chemical company responsible should work with environmental consultants to ensure that the contamination is eliminated and that such incidents can be prevented in the future.