Chemical Leak Leaves 300,000+ Without Water

A potentially dangerous chemical has leaked into the Elk River, contaminating water supplies for at least nine counties in southern West Virginia.

According to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP), on Jan. 9, a tank containing 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM) leaked an unknown quantity into the Elk River, a major source of water for southern West Virginia. The leak occurred approximately a mile and a half from the location where water is pumped out of the Elk River to supply the public.

Almost immediately, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin issued a state of emergency for Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties. His office released a statement indicating residents “are urged not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing, or bathing.”

Heather Greenfield, a 2013 graduate of Shepherd and current resident of Charleston in Kanawha County, discussed the water usage ban with The Picket. Greenfield described “a sense of panic” at first. “People rushed out to buy all of the water,” she said.

Donation centers were set up throughout the state, including in the Eastern Panhandle. The Shepherd University Wellness Center was designated as a location where individuals could drop off bottled water and non-perishable food which didn’t require water to prepare.

While long-term effects of exposure to or consumption of the contaminated water are unknown, the governor’s office encouraged anyone who experienced nausea, vomiting, dizziness or irritation of the eyes or skin to seek immediate medical attention. Further, the WVDEP advised barring animals from drinking the water as well.

Peter Vila, assistant professor of environmental studies, believes the disaster highlights just how important water is to nearly every facet of day-to-day life. “We need clean water for drinking, recreation and for industry. Hospitals, schools, restaurants and shops require clean, potable water for processing food and cleaning dishes, not just for drinking.”

John Maxey, a resident of Harpers Ferry who ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates in 2012, issued a statement condemning the lack of enforcement of existing regulations. Maxey argued that the outpouring of support for southern West Virginia is great, but he believes the residents would “rather have someone enforce the law and maybe a legislature that would stop weakening it at every opportunity.”

Vila agreed with Maxey in that “the cause or causes of this disaster should be carefully studied and specific, enforceable and monitored recommendations should be made to ensure that this facility, as well as others like it, do not repeat this catastrophe.” He also noted that “resource extraction is important to West Virginia,” and since the state depends upon the mining of coal and natural gas, accidents will happen. Though not giving a pass to the industry, he went on to say West Virginians “should be surprised” that a disaster of this nature happened and that just because mining occurs in West Virginia, it “does not excuse the industry” for the leak.

“One would expect potentially disastrous chemicals to be stored in facilities located far from rivers or far from areas vital to our economy and for our well-being,” Vila said.

The company who owns the leaky tank has been cited by the WVDEP. In a press release, the WVDEP stated that a cease operations order has been issued to Freedom Industries. All tanks owned by the company on the site must be tested. Further, the company has been ordered to halt the receipt of more chemicals to the faulty tank. They have also been told to “take all necessary measures to contain, recover and remediate the material that has escaped the facility.”

Kyle Hassler, lecturer of chemistry, pointed out that the true seriousness of the situation “in regard to environmental and human effect is unknown” and may not be known for some time. She was also quick to point out that even though the spill occurred in West Virginia, “conceivably the chemical could travel all the way to the Gulf [of Mexico]. These populations and environments can also be exposed potentially.”

Maxey indicated a potentially larger problem than just the leak. He contends that the West Public Service Commission, a board which regulates public utilities, has encouraged small, independent public water utility companies to sell their operations to a German company called West Virginia American Water Company. Maxey goes on to explain that in so doing, one company now operates a single intake source, located along the Elk River, which is designated to deliver water to 300,000 customers in the affected counties. He further notes that the rate is 50 percent higher than the rate charged by publicly owned water providers in the same area.

Hassler summed up the situation and potential future problems by saying, “We are all downstream from someone. That water is our water eventually.”

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