WV Water Crisis: Water We Doing?

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Photo/Foo Connor

It would seem I have failed the Art of Manliness Journal Challenge, but something came up.

Specifically, the water in my city is contaminated. Not just in Charleston, WV. An entire nine-county area can not drink from the tap, wash their clothes or dishes, and can not bathe.

Let’s start at the beginning, where all good stories begin. Media reports say it all started Thursday morning, when a storage tank at Freedom Industries started leaking 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (crude MCHM) into the Elk River two miles upstream from West Virginia American Water’s intake.

Shying away, Freedom Industries posts a piece of paper asking the media call rather than gather outside.

Photo/Foo Connor

Apparently Freedom didn’t report the leak to the state Department of Environmental Protection until an hour after county emergency services personnel followed the licorice-like smell wafting over the city straight to their door. WV American Water was aware of the chemical at noon, but they were confident their robust filtration system would keep the chemical from the water supply. By 4 p.m. the chemical overwhelmed their system and a mandatory Do No Use order went out to five counties, then nine.

So what is crude MCHM? We know it’s a chemical used to wash impurities from coal, but beyond that we don’t know much. Even the Material Safety Date Sheet, used by first responders to plan for disasters, is unclear.

At this point, another source – yes, I was making a complete pest of myself — sent me a copy of a 2011 Material Safety Data Sheet. “Caution,” it said. “Product can cause skin and eye irritation. Vapors, especially upon heating, can cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract.” The safety data sheet was strong on not inhaling the compound – which could cause headaches, breathing difficulty and nausea – and on wearing protective gear in case of an accident.

But here was what caught my attention:

Exposure guidelines: None established for products or components

Decomposition: Unavailable

Ecological information: There is no data available for the product

And that I think is the most important message in this story. That we don’t really know.

So a chemical that could be very bad or not very bad is in our water. It turns your water green and smells like licorice. Great.

The Charleston Gazette reports that Freedom first started storing this chemical at their Elk River terminal in 2008. It sounds to me like they didn’t maintain their tanks. But it also seems like the government never inspected their tanks either. From today’s Wall Street Journal:

The storage facility owned by Freedom Industries Inc. on the banks of the Elk River was subject to almost no state and local monitoring, interviews and records show. The industrial chemical that leaked into the river, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, isn’t closely tracked by federal programs. Before last week’s spill, a state regulator said environmental inspectors hadn’t visited the site since 1991.

So, no real inspections, plus this type of facility falls into a class that exempts them from reporting their chemical leak within 15 minutes. But the Charleston Gazette reports they at least filed their Tier 2 form with the state Department of Homeland Security and county emergency officials. They were aware, but didn’t plan for this scenario.

Those same agencies and public officials, though, have said they know little about the chemical involved. They’re all acting a bit surprised that this mystery substance was being stockpiled so close to a crucial water intake, and shocked that something like this could have happened.

Water company officials are equally puzzled. For example, West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre told reporters on Friday that his company didn’t know much about the chemical’s possible dangers, wasn’t aware of an effective treatment process, and wasn’t even sure exactly how much 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol is too much.

Again, just great.

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Photo/Foo Connor

The chemical is now at a level where the water company can begin flushing the lines and we can use the water again. Hopefully we’ll have water access again in the next few days. State and federal disaster response has been great. Luckily we brought in our own fresh water Friday for ourselves and friends in need. Other friends let us use their shower and laundry facilities. Everyone has been great mostly.

In the days to come we’ll find out more about what failed and what needs changed to make sure we mitigate this type of accident in the future. Obviously the chemical company is going to bear the brunt of the blame. They didn’t properly report the leak until after emergency services showed to up ask what the smell was, and they knew about the leak that morning. The didn’t maintain the storage tanks or the retaining walls. They never reached out to the water company, at last not the first or second day. It took them more than 24 hours to address the press. When they did, their CEO stopped to take a swig of water on camera and tried to cut the presser short until reporters demanded he stay.

No doubt the costs of cleanup will bankrupt this company. If that doesn’t, the lawsuits will. Sadly we’ll never see enough money from this company to pay for the millions this has cost the economy in these counties. But if you think the company is the only responsible party, you’re wrong. The county is trying to pass the buck, but it’s their responsibility to plan for this kind of thing. Their Local Emergency Planning Commission should have had a relationship with Freedom and a plan in case of leak. DEP should inspect these facilities more than every 25 years. Same goes for federal OSHA.

An environmental enforcement boat patrols in front of the chemical spill at Freedom Industries

Photo/Foo Connor

Do we need more regulation? No, it simply sounds like we need better regulation, not more. Amend the current regs to make sure places like Freedom don’t fall between the cracks. Provide the funding for more inspectors. And we need more knowledge of chemicals like this. The MSDS report should be more detailed.

Let’s learn from this and improve.

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