Chemical Leak Threatens 300,000 Water Customers

State of emergency declared for nine West Virginia counties affected by chemical spill

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As of last night, nine counties in West Virginia were still under a state of emergency after a chemical company spill leaked into the Elk River last week. The spill contaminated the Kanawha Valley water system, the largest and most complex water system in the state, with over 100 water storage tanks and more than 1,700 miles of pipeline. 

West Virginia American Water, which operates the water system, issued a “Do Not Use Water” notice for all affected counties, which included more than 300,000 water customers. 

The chemical — 4-methylcyclohexane methane — is used in coal processing and was traced to Freedom Industries along the south bank of the Elk River in Charleston. The chemical seeped through a porous cinder-block retaining wall, down the bank and into the river after leaking from a 1-inch hole in the bottom of a 40,000-gallon tank. 

Even in its most concentrated form, the chemical isn’t fatal, but people were told they shouldn’t even wash their clothes in the contaminated water, as the chemical can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

WVAW has implemented a team made up of the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, WVAW and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to monitor and sample raw and finished water and crews are conducting flushing throughout the distribution system. 

WVAW is continually updating its Facebook page to keep customers and the public informed of the ongoing situation. 

According to a WVAW press release, once testing has produced results showing that levels of the chemical are below 1 ppm and the water is deemed acceptable for normal use, the ban will be lifted systematically to ensure the water system is not overwhelmed, thereby causing more water-quality and service issues. 

While the situation may look bleak, an article on the WashingtonPost.com says things are looking up. “Government officials said Sunday that chemical levels had dropped significantly over the weekend, enabling WVAW to begin flushing out the contaminated pipes,” says the article. 

Fortunately, the Kanawha Valley water system infrastructure was in place for this type of water crisis. “The intake for the system is downstream by a little more than a mile, and on the same side of the river as the tanks containing the chemicals,” says the article. 

Since Freedom Enterprises stores chemicals, but does not produce them, they were not required to undergo inspections and permitting by the U.S. EPA.

However, with thousands of people lacking proper drinking water, questions are now being raised about how officials’ handled the incident. Questions about their lack of preparedness and the way in which such chemicals are regulated throughout the country have also emerged. 

Do you think tougher regulations should be in place for stored chemicals — even if they're not "hazardous enough" — to protect drinking water? Post a comment below.



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