West Virginia Chemical Spill: Were Regulations Too Lax?

  • People in nine counties in West Virginia were without safe drinking water for close to a week. Photo: National Guard via Flickr Creative Commons

January 17, 2014

A leak from a chemical storage tank into the Elk River polluted the water supply for 300,000 people in West Virginia this week. People in nine counties were without safe drinking water for close to a week. Thousands of gallons of MHCM, a chemical used in the processing of coal, affected water as far downstream as Cincinatti. 

Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette has been following the spill and spoke with The Allegheny Front about the regulation of the site, owned by Freedom Industries, which had not been inspected in over 20 years. 

Ward spoke with investigators from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection who described the spill:

"What I was told by the inspectors was that the company had  put one cinder block and one forty- or fifty-pound bag of basically glorified cat litter out to try to contain the spill and the DEP inspectors described that as just totally, completely inadequate," Ward said. 

He said the facility evaded regulatory scrutiny because the only permit it held was a storm water permit. 

"That doesn't mean somebody at our DEP couldn't have said 'Oh gosh' this thing is just a mile and a half from a water intake that serves 300,000 people, but apparently nobody did that." 

He said it's unclear what impact the spill will have on getting the state to accept more stringent regulations of the chemical and the coal industry. One clue may have come during press briefings after the spill for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. 

"When the word 'coal' was mentioned, the governor got very defensive and said this had nothing to do with coal. (He said) 'This wasn't a coal mine, this was a chemical (storage facility),' defying the fact that this was a facility that was storing and selling this particular chemical to the coal industry." 

As of Friday, most affected customers were cleared to drink the water, though health authorities cautioned that pregnant women and young children in some areas should drink bottled water.