New evidence suggests West Virginia chemical spill crossed state lines

January 22, 2015

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researchers have found that the chemical that polluted West Virginia's drinking water supply last year may have crossed state lines. The study, published in Chemosphere, a peer-reviewed online research journal, shows that the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (crude MCHM) was detected in  the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky, 390 miles away from the original spill site. Scientists also discovered that MCHM was still present in West Virginia waters, even a year after the accident.

The spill involved a 10,000 gallon chemical leak from a neglected storage tank owned by Freedom Industries. The chemical contaminated local drinking water sources and sent 600 people to the hospital with mild illnesses. Long-term impacts of the contaminant on human health and the environment are still unknown.

Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer who received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the West Virginia spill last year said that his team had conducted similar research before with identical results.

Whelton and his colleagues found that the chemical plume traveled to Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. He was intrigued by the U.S Geological Survey research team's methodology, a technique known as "Purge and Trap." According to Whelton, the USGS researchers were able to detect crude MCHM at much lower concentrations than previous researchers. They were also able to discover a previously undetected chemical contaminant present at low levels known as methyl 4-methylcyclohexanecarboxylate, or MMCHC.

USGS scienists admit that both the MCHM and MMCHC detected in various states were present in very diluted concentrations that would most likely be harmless to drinkers. 

Bill Foreman, a USGS research chemist and lead author of the study said the study taught them a lot: "Researchers had little information on how the spilled chemicals moved through water, their stability or toxicity, or even how to measure them, as published information was either limited or non-existent."

Environmental consultants help companies monitor their above and belowground storage tanks and keep on top of new regulations governing wastewater disposal.