300,000 West Virginia Residents Affected by Chemical Spill

On January 9, 2014, West Virginia’s Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, declared a state of emergency after a storage tank containing crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (“MCHM”) began leaking into the Elk River, located 1.5 miles upstream of a water-treatment facility in Charleston, West Virginia. MCHM is a chemical compound used at coal processing plants to separate coal particles from the surrounding rock.

Alerting the Public of the Contamination

According to authorities, the contamination occurred after thousands of gallons of MCHM leaked through a one-inch hole, bypassed a containment wall, and seeped into the Elk River. Charleston residents quickly began to notice a licorice-like odor wafting from the chemical storage site. Upon arriving at the scene, State inspectors quickly advised 300,000 people in nine counties (Kanawha, Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane) not to drink or use the water. In addition, the contamination caused schools to close in at least five counties, and strict water bans prevented hospitals, restaurants, nursing homes, and other local establishments from using their water until further testing had been performed.

According to authorities, the contamination does not appear to pose lethal harm. “You’d have to drink something like 1,700 gallons of water to even approach a lethal dose,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, Director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. However, as a result of the chemical spill, approximately 300 residents had to seek medical attention. Symptoms ranged from nausea to rashes. State Department of Health & Human Resources Secretary, Karen L. Bowling, reported no patients were in serious or critical condition.

Once word leaked out about the contamination, panic set in amongst affected residents who quickly stripped store shelves of items such as bottled water, paper cups, and plates. “If you are low on bottled water, don’t panic because help is on the way,” said Governor Tomblin at a news conference the day after authorities detected the leak. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and several companies, including Pepsi and Coca-Cola, sent bottled water and other items for people unable to use tap water.

In the Wake of the Spill

Initially, Freedom Industries, the chemical supplier whose leaking storage tank caused the federal emergency, reported that the contamination involved approximately 7,500 gallons of MCHM. However, almost two weeks after the initial leak, officials revealed that a second coal-processing compound, a mixture of polyglycol ethers known as PPH, had leaked into and contributed to the contamination of Charleston’s water system.

While PPH is thought to be less toxic than MCHM, the late disclosure outraged local officials and residents who had been awaiting accurate information regarding the extent of the contamination. “It is very disturbing that we are just now finding out about this new chemical, almost two weeks after the [initial] leak,” said West Virginia’s Secretary of State, Natalie E. Tennant.

On January 17, a mere eight days after the initial spill began, Freedom Industries filed a Chapter 11 petition with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of West Virginia. The Company used their bankruptcy documents as a forum to theorize on how the chemical spill occurred, stating that frigid temperatures caused a water line to burst, the ground beneath the storage tank froze, and some kind of sharp object punctured a hole in the side of the storage tank, causing it to leak.

While the bankruptcy filing has been described as “a tactic to freeze the two-dozen liability suits,” which have already been filed against Freedom Industries, it does not halt lawsuits against other third parties targeted in the spill. Some of the lawsuits also name West Virginia American Water Company and Eastman Chemical, the producer of the MCHM spilled. Furthermore, the bankruptcy proceedings do not strip the Freedom Industries of its responsibility to rectify the environmental damage caused by the spill.

While the full extent of damages remains unknown, Government entities, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, are continuing to investigate the spill as well as mitigate the long-term effects.

The title picture is of the Elk River.


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