A company that processes and stores the hazardous chemicals used in the coal industry on the Elk River in West Virginia could be facing some serious consequences, after more than 300,000 people and numerous businesses in nine counties in that state awoke last Friday to discover their tap water was unsafe to use for just about anything, including showering, bathing or cooking, because of a chemical spill from one of their storage tanks.
To say the people in the area were inconvenienced is an understatement. Schools closed, any business that relied on water even a little, such as restaurants and hotels were shuttered, and supermarkets and convenience stores ran out of bottled water quickly, as residents looked for anything to drink. There were also large traffic jams, as residents crowded in to fill bottles from tankers that were brought to them by the National Guard.
There was also anxiety, as residents wondered how long their water had been contaminated with 5,000 gallons of the little-known chemical, MCHM, or 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, before they had been advised to stop drinking it. One local official was advised of the situation as he was taking a bath. It was a rational worry; residents had reported an overwhelming odor that reminded them of black licorice throughout the day before.
Based on the reports of the odor, a couple of state employees tracked the leak and traced it to a series of storage tanks that were arrayed along the south bank of the Elk, owned by Freedom Industries. The chemical had been leaking from hole an inch wide, near the bottom of one tank. The MCHM was pooled in a containment area, but was seeping through a retaining wall and into the river.
Some had been worrying for years about the potential for a crisis of this sort. The tanks housing the MCHM were only about a mile upstream from the water system’s main intake. For some reason, however, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection did not consider the chemical to be hazardous, and the site was not subject to regular inspections.
State officials were informed by Freedom Industries after the leak that the company had placed $1 million in escrow with the intention of upgrading the containment area around each of the tanks, but that the upgrades had not yet begun.
Though little is known about the long-term toxic effects of the chemical, according to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, prolonged exposure to high concentrations of MCHM can result in headaches, can irritate the eyes and skin irritation, and create difficulty breathing. Early on in the crisis, about a half dozen people were admitted to hospitals with nausea symptoms,
It is unknown how long it will take for the water to be clean enough for use, but as of Monday morning, officials report major improvement over the weekend. President Obama has declared a federal emergency, and several federal agencies are investigating the incident.