For much of West Virginia, the start of the New Year brought anything but “good tidings.”
On January 9, 2014, approximately 10,000 gallons of the hazardous chemical substance 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (“MCHM”) leaked from a storage tank and flowed into the Elk River. A chemical plume travelled 1.5 miles upstream to a water treatment plant, and contaminated a great deal of the state’s drinking water supply. This caused the federal government to issue a disaster declaration. The 300,000 residents, schools, restaurants, and businesses in Charleston and nine surrounding counties were ordered not to use the water for up to ten days.
You might be wondering why this chemical spill has caused such chaos. Accidents happen, and do not normally result in the extended shutdown of a state’s drinking water source. Here, however, a “perfect storm” of regulatory failures and unknown conditions combined to create a very scary situation.
First, MCHM was not regulated under any state or federal program. West Virginia state law does not require chemical storage facility inspections, and this particular site hadn’t been inspected since 1991. MCHM is not covered by any of the federal law statutes with chemical reporting requirements, such as the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Secondly, the water treatment plant did not know that the chemical was being stored nearby. Accordingly, neither the chemical facility nor the water treatment plant had an accident management or emergency action plan to minimize human or environmental exposure to a chemical release.
Finally, and most importantly, there was little to no information available to anyone about MCHM. MCHM – and thus any data about it – was not listed in any of the federal government’s chemical or toxic substance databases. Neither the Center for Disease Control nor the Materials Safety Data Sheet provided by the manufacturer was particularly helpful to West Virginia officials in determining the appropriate response. Information on the toxicity, carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, or developmental properties of the chemical was simply not available, generally, because this information was not required by any State or Federal regulatory scheme.
Responders had little to no assistance in determining just how toxic the chemical was to humans or the environment, at what dosage harmful effects would occur, or what symptoms to expect. They chose to exercise caution and shut down the water supply to avoid potentially devastating impacts to West Virginia residents’ health.
By January 18, federal authorities had instructed residents in all affected areas that after flushing their water systems, they could resume regular use of the water. However, many people felt uneasy about this advice, because of the uncertain basis for the decision.
It appears that their apprehension is warranted. Residents and visitors have complained of headaches, nausea, vomiting, rashes, and staph infections stemming from use of their water. Just this week, nearly a month after the spill, several schools in Charleston closed due to water quality concerns: students complained of the chemical’s licorice-like odor, burning sensations in their eyes and noses, and nausea. Though regulators maintain that the water is safe to drink, the community is still dealing with the aftereffects of this disaster, and will be for the foreseeable future.
The wonder of it is that existing federal and state environmental law did not provide sufficient protection to the citizens of West Virginia, and gave them no assistance in understanding whether their health was at risk from ingesting water laced with MCHM.