Back in January, a chemical spill near Charleston, West Virginia left nearly 300,000 people without safe access to tap water for days. The culprit was methylcyclohexane (MCHM), a chemical that is often used by the coal mining industry. Though it is not believed to be lethal, MCHM is known to cause vomiting, nausea and irritation among those who are exposed to it.
Shortly after the spill took place, we wrote on this blog that more preparation could have mitigated many of the negative effects. For example, the state government could have taken a more proactive role in discerning some of the murkier questions regarding ownership of Freedom Industries, where the spill originated. It should also have worked to establish the level of chemical that was considered safe in tap water—something that caused quite a bit of confusion in the days following the incident.
However, West Virginia has finally enacted a safety bill that will hopefully make future incidents of this nature less likely to occur.
Governor signs storage tank safety bill
It took months to get to this point. As reported by the Associated Press, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has singed legislation that will impose new safeguards on above-ground storage tanks, similar to the one that caused the MCHM leak. All such tanks will have to be registered with the Department of Environmental Protection and be inspected annually for leaks or other defects. In addition, the new law will require the Bureau of Public Health to work with federal agencies to gather the medical information necessary to track any long-term health effects that have sprung up as a result of the spill.
Finally, the law will require water utilities in the state to develop an emergency plan by 2015.
"The Elk River chemical spill has made us all, in our communities and across our nation, take a closer look at our infrastructure, especially around our waterways," Tomblin said. "We have focused our efforts on the health and safety of those impacted."
In addition to responses from the state government, the chemical spill has elicited congressional action at the federal level. According to an article in the National Journal, West Virginia's two U.S. Senators, Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller have been working with Senator Barbara Boxer of California to introduce legislation that would increase regulation of water supplies and "crack down" on chemical storage facilities.
For some time, the bill remained in the Senate's Environment and Public Works committee, where lawmakers debated the bill and sought to mold it into reform that could command bipartisan support. Recent reports suggest that the committee has achieved its goal.
Though the original version of the bill would have created safety standards for all above-ground chemical storage facilities, the latest version may exempt certain chemicals. It will also give states the ability to opt out of the program, at which point the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would step in and take over.
It is still unclear if this bill can pass the full Senate. But actions by both the state and federal government show that stakeholders must act to prevent harmful chemical spills. By working with environmental consultants, they can narrow their focus and accurately target the greatest threats.