West Virginia Taking Remedial Measures in Aftermath of Major Chemical Spill
Freedom Industries Inc. has until March 15 to remove all the chemicals from its storage farm that leaked into the Elk River near Charleston, W.Va., shutting down the drinking-water supply for about 300,000 people in January.
Meanwhile, the state Legislature is acting on proposed regulations of similar aboveground storage tanks, residents continue to experience water problems, and grants are going to researchers to study water issues.
Freedom must start "to dismantle, remove and properly manage the disposition of all aboveground storage tanks, associated piping, machinery and appurtenances associated with the bulk-storage operations at the Charleston facility" by March 15, according to a Jan. 24 consent order with the West Virginia Dept. of Environmental Protection.
Since then, Freedom has upped its size estimate of the Jan. 9 spill to 10,000 gallons from 7,500 gallons and, on Jan. 21, disclosed that a second chemical is involved. The first is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, which is used in coal mining. The second is a proprietary mixture of polyglycol ethers, or PPH, which was "a relatively small percentage" of the leaked chemicals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While limited information is known about either chemical, area residents were warned to use water only for flushing toilets and fire- fighting for nine days, until operator West Virginia American Water could flush the system to safe levels. Pregnant women were advised to continue drinking bottled water.
State and federal experts continue to test the water to determine MCHM levels are below one part per billion, well below the one part per million (ppm) generally regarded as safe.
Residents remain cautious about water quality and report a MCHM-related licorice smell in their water, so the state and water company are still providing bottled water or water tankers to area distribution stations.
The National Science Foundation has awarded $150,000 in grants to researchers at West Virginia University, Virginia Tech and the University of South Alabama to study MCHM absorption into, and removal from, plastic water pipe; the extent of contamination of Charleston's drinking water, its water treatment plant and areas near the river; and the behavior of MCHM in the environment.
"This is one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century. In instances such as this, where the situation is still developing and public health is involved, timing is everything," William Cooper, NSF program director, said of the one-year grants.
Freedom, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization on Jan. 14, has remained close-mouthed about the incident. It is under investigation by multiple state and federal agencies, including the FBI.
The state Senate has passed legislation proposed by Gov. Earl Tomblin (D) that would regulate aboveground storage tanks and their owners; the state house is studying it now. The proposed West Virginia Source-Water Protection Act also targets water systems. The bill calls for a yearly fee, a source-water protection plan and emergency communication plans.