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Fri January 10, 2014

What is Crude MCHM?

Paul Ziemkiewicz, Director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute
Paul Ziemkiewicz, Director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute

For the latest in understanding the chemical compound Crude MCHM that was leaked into the Elk River, we reached out to the West Virginia Water Research Institute.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, Director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, describes the chemical leaked from Freedom Industries into the Elk River, Crude MCHM, as a kind of detergent used to clean coal, a surfactant.

“You’re trying to separate the coal from the non-burnable stuff like shales, clays, stuff like that,” Ziemkiewicz says. “The process takes advantage of the fact that coal is lighter than these clays and rocks, but they have to be separated. So you use these surfactants to help that separation process.”

He says that water ends up in slurry impoundments, and then often is recycled to wash more coal.

Ziemkiewicz says he would be surprised if the reported 2-5k gallons would be getting into water supplies in concentrations that are “acutely toxic,” meaning that small amounts ingested could potentially make someone very sick. Given the amount leaked, over the hour it was leaked, and the flow of the Little Elk River, Ziemkiewicz estimates concentration levels of about 40miligrams/liter.

Ziemkiewicz explains that there are primary drinking water standards that regulate chemicals that pose serious health risks, and that Crude MCHM wouldn’t be on that list. He says as a foaming agent it would fall in the secondary drinking water standards which are regulated at about half a milligram/liter. Secondary standards, Ziemkiewicz says, are more to regulate aesthetic issues such as color, taste, and texture. He says while ingesting Crude MCHM poses few health risks, it is considered an irritant.

“My estimates would indicate that the concentration getting to the water intake of the water distribution system would be well above that because they’re both on the same side of the river and it may not have mixed 100 percent by the time it got to the water intake. So given all that, I think it was prudent to shut down the water system,” he says.

Ziemkiewicz speculates that the compound was likely distributed into the far reaches of the water system before it was shut down. The time it will take to thoroughly flush the system is perhaps the biggest and most challenging concern by his estimation.