News
6:19 am
Mon January 13, 2014

7 Things We Know About the Chemical Spill in West Virginia

A faulty retaining wall is being blamed for not containing the leak of Crude MCHM into the Elk River Thursday.
A faulty retaining wall is being blamed for not containing the leak of Crude MCHM into the Elk River Thursday.
Credit C.W Sigman

For four days, more than  300,000 West Virginia American Water customers in West Virginia have been told not to ingest, cook, bathe, wash or boil water.

Why? A chemical spill Thursday of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol from Freedom Industries in Charleston.

On Friday, we asked five questions about the spill. Since then, we have found some answers, and even more questions.

1. How harmful is this chemical to drink or breathe?

We still don't have a definitive answer on this, although West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Glynis Board has this great story about Crude MCHM. The Centers for Disease Control gave state officials a standard of 1 part per million as safe, but it's still unclear where that came from. As Board reports, it could be because Crude MCHM is not considered acutely toxic, so it is regulated under secondary drinking water standards of .5 milligrams per liter.

The long-term effects of this chemical upon humans appear to be unknown. The head of the Kanawha/Charleston Health Department suggests federal or state funding for a long-term study.

2. How much of this chemical entered the Elk River? When did the spill start?

Timeline:

7 a.m. - 8 a.m.: People in area start complaining about the smell. 

10:30 a.m.:  This is when Freedom Industries President Gary Southern says his employees discover the leak. Apparently, no one from the company notifies state or local officials, or calls the spill hotline, as required.

11:05 a.m.: After receiving odor complaints from residents, DEP officials show up at the site. Freedom Industries had not called to report the leak to them.

12:05 p.m.: Freedom Industries reports spill to hotline.

As for when the leak started: it's not known yet exactly when. But since Crude MCHM has such a low odor threshold, state environmental officials think residents started smelling it very soon after it started leaking into the Elk River.

State environmental officials estimate 7,500 gallons of Crude MCHM leaked into the Elk River.

3. Why can't we determine how much of this chemical is in the drinking water supply?

At the time of the spill, state and water officials had no good way to quickly test for Crude MCHM. Since then, the West Virginia National Guard and state health and environmental officials have worked at breakneck speed to develop a reliable test and brought the testing time down to under 20 minutes per sample.

Credit Aaron Payne

4. Why are we allowing chemicals to be stored so near a major water source, especially when we apparently have no way to test for it in the drinking water?

West Virginia American Water officials say they were not aware this chemical was being stored 1.5 miles upstream. Freedom Industry had filed a required Tier Two Emergency and Hazardous Chemical Inventory form, but according to the Wall Street Journal, a local emergency planner and a spokeswoman for the water company both say they never saw it.

This site was not regulated because of an apparent loophole. Plants that make or use chemicals are more heavily regulated, but this plant only stored chemicals. The last time it was inspected by state environmental officials was 1991 -- when it was an entirely different type of facility, owned by a different company.

Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward asks the question, Why wasn't there a plan? As he reports, there were lots of warnings.

5. Is exposure to this chemical in the air or water making anyone sick? From DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling at press conference Monday: 14 people admitted to hospital, 231 people were treated and released. No deaths have been blamed on the spill as of Sunday evening. WV Poison Control received more than 1,000 calls.

6. Why was the "Do Not Use" order issued at least 10 hours (and perhaps more) after the spill started? The Do Not Use order wasn't issued until the 5 o'clock hour. Earlier that afternoon, West Virginia American Water officials said the treatment plant could handle the contaminant. Why did they change their minds? Did pressure from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other state officials influence the company's decision to issue the Do Not Use order? Or did new facts on the ground, like growing knowledge of the extent of the contamination, lead them to issue the order?

7. When will it be safe to use the water again? Flushing has begun, with priority going to regions that have large hospitals, but it could take days for everyone in the region to be told they can use their water again.

What we still don't know:

What are the long-term effects, if any, from exposure to Crude MCHM?

Will it linger in customers' pipes and water heaters?

Who will be held responsible for the leak?

What's the full story behind Freedom Industries and its owners (Charleston Gazette reporter David Gutman has a start on this one already)?

How will state and federal lawmakers respond?

What's the financial impact on families, businesses, and local and state coffers?

How much compensation, if any, will those impacted receive for their losses?

This is not the first serious chemical release in the Kanawha Valley - when will the next one occur, and are we ready?

What questions do you still have? Leave them in the comments.