W.Va. Chemical Spill, One Month Later

  • The Centers for Disease Control's Dr. Tanja Popovic, Deputy Associate Director for Science provides updates on the response to the Jan. 9 spill. Photo: West Virginia Public Broadcasting/Chuck Roberts

February 7, 2014

The big West Virginia chemical spill last month means new state and federal laws are on the way.  Meanwhile, the remainder of the chemicals from the West Virginia site are on the way to Pennsylvania.

It’s been a month since 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol MCHM contaminated Elk River, leaving 300,000 residents without water.  West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s News Director Beth Vorhees and her reporting team have been covering the spill from the start.  We caught up with Vorhees this week about the latest news. Here are the highlights.

Chemicals Go North

Freedom Industries, owner of the chemical plant, is based in Pittsburgh, and will be moving the MCHM from the site to a location outside Pittsburgh.

“Freedom Industries is under an order by the governor to dismantle and tear down and get rid of all the chemicals at this site along the Elk River at this terminal,” Vorhees says. “So Freedom Industries was expected to move 3,500 gallons of crude MCHM from its facility in Nitro, which is an industrial area not far from Charleston to a coal facility in Pennsylvania.”

Governor Gives A Bit

West Virginia’s Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced he’ll evaluate testing water in the homes of residents who get their drinking water from Elk River. Vorhees said this was a surprising development that came after a briefing held by Tomblin, and representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“They were there to assure West Virginians in the nine counties affected by this that the water is safe to use,” Vorhees says. But reporters at the news conference repeatedly pressed the governor about testing water in homes.  At the meeting, Vorhees says, “The governor hemmed and hawed.” Afterward, he announced on Twitter that he’d consider the testing.

EPA And CDC Weigh In

While Tomblin shifted by saying he’ll consider residential water testing, the EPA maintains that there is no need to test, and that its mandate is to keep an eye on the distribution systems, not what comes out of spouts in people’s homes.

The CDC says there will probably be no long-term health effects because the exposure to the chemical was so short, and the state of emergency and the “do not use” warning were imposed quickly very quickly.  “They don’t feel anyone was really harmed for the long term,” Vorhees says.

State And Federal Legislation

West Virginia’s Water Protection Bill has already passed in the State Senate and is now being considered by the House of Delegates. It requires owners and operators to register their storage tanks with West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection and provide detailed information about the tanks’ locations and contents.  That information also would have to be shared with local officials. The DEP would have to develop a regulatory permitting program for construction and maintenance of above-ground storage tanks. DEP inspectors must annually inspect tanks 25 miles upstream of any public water intake, and the bill also requires public water systems to create source water protection plans as well as including contingencies for alternative sources of water.

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), Barbara Boxer (D-California) introduced the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act that in many ways mirrors the West Virginia bill. Vorhees says it calls for more frequent inspections.  The Senate is also weighing the Chemical Safety Improvement. Under it, states could request the EPA prioritize the testing of specific chemicals held near waterways.