Megan Newman, ‘Doah Editor-In-Chief
January 15, 2014
For four days more than 300,000 West Virginia residents spanning over nine counties were left in a state of emergency after their main water supply was contaminated. On Thursday, Jan. 12 approximately 7,500 gallons of the compound 4-methylcyclohexanne menthol (MCHM), a chemical used to clean coal, poured from a 40,000 gallon tank into the Elk River in Charleston, W.V. President Obama declared a state of emergency that Friday morning. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and The West Virginia National Guard were called in to distribute clean drinking water throughout the affected area.
The tap water ban ordered those in affected areas not to drink, cook with, bathe in or brush their teeth with the water. The contamination affected the state’s economy as well as several stores and essentially all restaurants have had to close their doors until access to clean water is restored. The tap water ban made everything from making a meal to taking a shower exceedingly difficult. Residents in the affected area have reported searching for hours to find bottled water as well as driving over an hour away to be able to take a shower.
Hospitals struggled to keep up with the number of visitors to the E.R., not only because of the influx of those fearing they were sick from the water, but their own lack of running water for hand washing and sterilization of materials. Only 14 patients were actually admitted for issues related to the contaminated water, none of whom were in serious condition.
Though the tap water ban was lifted for about 10,000 residents on Monday, Jan. 13, there are still several ongoing investigations into what caused the chemical spill to happen and how to prevent another one. The main problem the investigations have brought to light so far is Freedom Industries’ facility’s lack of inspections. According to CNN, the last inspection at the facility was in 2012 to determine if the facility needed air quality permits, and the inspector did not visit the area where the tank that caused the spill was stored. In 2010 another state environmental inspector visited the facility after reports of a strange odor around the tanks was filed. No evidence of a leak was found. Prior to the 2010 visit the last inspection at the facility was in 1991, at which point the facility was used to house a different substance, which required different regulations, meaning the tank was only truly inspected once in the last 22 years.
On top of the lack of inspection, a major permit loophole was discovered. Despite being potentially dangerous, MCHM is not considered a hazardous material, and since the facility only stores it, and does not produce any chemicals the only permit they are required to have is an industrial stormwater permit. The only requirement for their only permit: they must monitor run off from the rain, and self-report the results every quarter. These regulatory issues are occurring not just in W.V., but also throughout the U.S. This incident caught the attention of several lawmakers, now aware of the problem eager to work to prevent a reoccurrence.
There will also be further investigations into Freedom Industries as it is suspected that they did not respond to the incident properly. W.V. state law requires chemical spills are to be reported immediately, however Freedom Industries did not. Several sources reported that state environmental investigators arrived at the facility to find Freedom Industries’ employees at the location of the spill, however the contaminated water was reported by the water company not Freedom industries who did not file their official report until an hour after state investigators arrived.
The tap water ban is to be lifted for all residents in the affected area by the end of the week. Investigations are set to be continued by state and federal agencies until all remaining questions of how the spill occurred are answered and preventative measure can be taken against future incidents.