In a place nicknamed “Chemical Valley”, environmental accidents have become far too common. The chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia is the third notable chemical accident in that region in the last five years. Nearly 8,000 gallons of the coal cleaning chemical MCHM (4-methylcyclohexane methanol) leaked into the Elk River last week, contaminating the water supply of 300,000 people in and around the West Virginia capital.
Eight thousand gallons is no small spill and is not easily diluted. The accident affected more than a quarter million people – about the same number of people that live in Blair, Cambria and Bedford counties combined. The magnitude of the disaster has prompted the public to ask how this could possibly happen. There seems to be plenty of blame to spread around.
MCHM is not classified as a toxic chemical. As a coal cleaning chemical, it is more like a detergent than an extremely toxic or carcinogenic solvent. That means that it is not as stringently regulated as other more toxic industrial chemicals. While not classified as a “hazardous” chemical, MCHM is clearly still a water pollutant and many environmental protection professionals contend that it should have been regulated as one. Unfortunately, many industrial chemicals have been innocent until proven guilty.
The facility itself went more than twenty years without a full-fledged inspection by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Part of the reason for that is that the chemicals are merely being “stored’ rather than being manufactured or transported. And speaking of the storage, many news reports have noted that it wasn’t done very well. The tanks themselves appeared to be old and poorly maintained. The secondary containment (that is supposed to stop leaks from the tank escaping into the environment) did not work either. This allowed thousands of gallons of the chemical to flow directly into the river from which Charleston draws its water.
It may defy logic and common sense, but the facility sets in the floodplain of the Elk River and is just a short distance from a major intake of the metropolitan Charleston water supply. Owner Freedom Industries may have also been slow in notifying local officials and American Water that the spill had occurred. Therefore, water was taken into the system before officials even knew it was there. Once in the system, it was impossible to get it out.
Most Blair County water supplies originate from the headwaters of our region’s river systems and our watersheds are incredibly well managed. It would seem that West Virginia state and local officials have ignored watershed protection efforts that have become routine in Blair County.
Following an accident that killed two workers at the nearby Bayer CropScience plant in 2008, the United States Chemical Safety Board recommended that a local program be developed to prevent accidents like this one. The West Virginia Gazette reported that the state ignored the recommendation and that county would not fund the program. Evidently fearing that more regulation would be costly to industry, nothing was done. The ultimate costs of this accident to the people of Kanawha County will be many times the cost of a prevention program.