Ashton Marra Published

Environmental Official: Coal Companies Don't Want Stigma of MCHM


At the statehouse Friday, members of the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources continued their hearings on the Elk River chemical spill with testimonies from representatives of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

DEP Chief of Homeland Security and Emergency Response Mike Dorsey told lawmakers he’s been working to remediate the site since the initial incident in January.

Freedom Industries is located in what was previously a petroleum storage area and Dorsey said it doesn’t appear the tanks were modified when the company began to fill them with tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals.

Dorsey said the Chemical Safety Board found two holes in the bottom when they emptied the leaking tank, but investigators are still unsure as to when the leak started.

 “We may never know that,” Dorsey testified. “We know that the smell of this stuff is so strong that once it got to the surface we smelt it. What’s it smell like underground? Is there a big odor? We don’t know.”

Dorsey added the incident shows the vulnerability of the system.

Head of the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation Harold Ward updated commission members on their investigations into crude MCHM, the chemical involved in contaminating the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians.

Ward said about 35 companies in the state use MCHM in their coal washing process and from tests, the DEP has found most of the chemical sticks to the coal and is shipped out with the product.

He said three site tests showed trace amounts of the chemical being discharged from their impoundments, but they were still below permitting levels.

Ward said two companies, including Freedom, are continuing to sell the chemical in the state, but many are looking for an alternative, even at a cost of 70 to 100 percent more.

“There are better products out there that can be used and I don’t think its toxicity the reason that the operators in the coal industry are switching away from it,” he told lawmakers. “It’s just that nobody wants to be attached to this product in any way shape or form.”

Ward told the commission he fully supports the above ground tank inspection program as being discussed in the legislature now and said he will have additional legislative suggestions for the department secretary to share in the next two weeks.