West Virginia Coal Chemical Spill Causes Water Crisis

The news first entered the public domain as quietly as the coal-processing chemical that seeped into Charleston, West Virginia’s Elk River on January 9, 2014. Just as the buildup of the coal impurity-washing agent, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), that leaked from the storage tank eventually became impossible for residents to ignore, so too did the nation finally recognize the abhorrent truth that 300,000 people (or about 16 percent of West Virginia’s population) had been without safe public drinking water for days. Charleston is the state capitol and the largest city situated in the Kawanha Valley.

To address the serious nature of this industrial chemical spill, we provide below a partial rundown of the facts, a collection of peoples’ experiences they shared via social media (Storify by Ecocentric’s Kristen Demaline, upper right) and other ways to follow the story into its aftermath.

What Happened

The first sign of a problem was a phone call from a resident to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to report a strange “licorice” odor. Sometime midday on January 9, West Virginia American Water gave a “do not use water” notice to its customers after detection of chemical contamination at their drinking water treatment plant, the state’s largest. Around this time, state and federal scientists started hourly water testing to monitor contamination levels.

On January 10, both Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and President Obama declared a state of emergency. In all, 9 counties and 300,000 people were affected and told not to use tap water for any purpose to avoid potential sickness. Bottled water was rapidly bought up by locals after the announcement, leaving grocery and convenience stores’ shelves bare. The National Guard soon began water deliveries.

The discharge, estimated to be over 7,000 gallons, emanated from a malfunctioning storage tank at the Freedom Industries chemical storage facility located near the Elk River about one mile upstream from the water treatment plant’s intake. When DEP officials entered the scene it looked like the leak had been going on for some time and the company had used a “Band-Aid approach.” The facility had not been inspected for years because of a loophole in state law that requires checkups of chemical manufacturing and transport facilities, but not those used for above-ground chemical storage tanks. The company was later cited by the DEP for improper berm construction intended to prevent a leak into the river. In a frank interview, Charleston mayor, Danny Jones, questioned whether the company was operated by a “small group of renegades” and stated that he was not “even sure they cared what happened to the public” considering the berm work that went undone. In a press conference held on January 12th, Freedom Industries’ president Gary Southern said that “this incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated and we are very, very sorry for the disruption to everybody's daily life.”

Since Tuesday, January 14, most affected Kawanha Valley water customers have been told by authorities that the water is safe to use at the 1 part per million (ppm) level, although the Environmental Defense Fund believes that safety threshold is based on “shaky science.”

Peoples’ Experiences

When the “do not use water” order was issued, that meant that drinking, cooking, bathing, clothes or dish washing were deemed unsafe. Residents were relying on bottled water for most any water uses (except toilet flushing), which meant that it was flying off the shelves. Within the greater community, many schools, institutions and businesses – including virtually all restaurants – were shuttered for days. As of January 17, 317 people have been hospitalized for treatment of chemical-related symptoms, according to the state Department of Health.

To see how gross the water looked, learn how inventive people were and to get more on peoples’ experiences, check out our interactive Storify narrative.

The (Not Quite) Aftermath

Despite water service being restored and declared safe in some areas on January 14, the state Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control issued an advisory 48 hours later that pregnant women should not drink tap water until there was no trace of MCHM. The MCHM plume has been closely tracked as it moves downriver past Cincinnati and Louisville, both of which took precautionary action and were largely unaffected. (You can follow the path of the MCHM plume with this Mapbox map by Waterkeeper Alliance.)

The water contamination and its fallout will inevitably lead to investigations into Freedom Industries, reconstructions of what transpired and proposals to remedy what went wrong. Movement on federal-level regulations on chemical storage and transportation has begun with West Virginian Senator Joe Manchin leading the way. Questions have already arisen about whether state government allowed lax regulation because of a too-cozy relationship with the area’s dominant coal and chemical industries. This is also a sad example of how ignoring one element of the interlinked food, water and energy systems – the Nexus – can imperil the others, harming people and the environment.


Finally, we think the best reporting of the incident has been done by two Charleston Gazette reporters, Ken Ward Jr. and David Gutman. Follow their ongoing coverage via their Twitter handles: @Kenwardjr and @davidlgutman

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