Second-largest coal producing state faces 40,000-gallon tank chemical leak
For a fifth straight day, thousands of people in West Virginia were forced to used bottled water to wash, cook and brush their teeth following a chemical spill that contaminated water in Charleston, W. Va.
The contamination was discovered Jan. 9 after West Virginia American Water received complaints about a licorice-type odor in the water. After testing, it was determined the chemical was 4-methylcylohexane methanol.
The chemical, even in its most concentrated form, 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.
Schools, day-care centers, hotels and many restaurants in the Charleston area were closed Friday and also Monday because of the spill.
The chemical leaked out of a 40,000-gallon tank at a Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River. State officials reported on Saturday that they believe about 7,500 gallons leaked. Some of that was contained before flowing into the river, but it wasn’t sure how much entered the water supply.
About 170 people were treated and released from emergency rooms for exposure, according to state officials. There were also 1,045 calls to a poison control center about human exposure and 65 animal-related calls.
Over the weekend, tests showed that levels of the chemical — which is used in coal processing — were consistently below a toxic level, and in some samples, there was no trace of it. Tests were expected to continue Jan. 13.
If tests continue to show the water being safe, the ban affecting people across a nine-county region in West Virginia would be lifted in waves for specific areas — beginning with downtown Charleston, according to West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre.
Freedom Industries is the product of a merger effective Dec. 31, 2013, that combined Etowah River Terminal, the facility where the leak occurred, Crete Technologies and Poca Blending — both located in nearby Nitro, W. Va.
According to its website, Freedom Industries is a “full-service producer of specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries.” The Etowah River Terminal sits along the Elk River near the intake facilities for the West Virginia division of American Water Works, which is the largest publicly traded water utility in the U.S.
According to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Homeland Security and Emergency Response office, Freedom Industries’ tanks don’t fall under an inspection program and the chemicals stored at the facility weren’t considered hazardous enough to require environmental permitting.
“In my world – I’m a hazmat guy – this stuff’s below my radar screen until this happens,” said Michael Dorsey, chief of the department. “The tanks themselves, we don’t have the regulatory authority to inspect those tanks.”
However, since this incident lawmakers in West Virginia are already talking about changing that.
“We are working on some ideas right now,” said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman. “I think a lot of folks will be calling for legislation and rightly so.”
Coal and chemical industries are big in the state’s economy, providing thousands of jobs. West Virginia is the second-largest coal producing state, behind Wyoming, and the state has about 150 chemical companies, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
On Sunday, Freedom Industries President Gary Southern said his company has removed the remaining chemical from the site and took it elsewhere, and the removal of other chemicals was ongoing.
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