West Virginia spill fallout turns to regulation questions

by David Sonju
Posted 1/15/14, 02:35 pm

A chemical spill in West Virginia on Thursday left more than 300,000 people without clean tap water for at least five days. Often going without showers, residents in and near Charleston, W.Va., had to use bottled water for essential hygiene and cooking needs during the ban on tap water.

Officials began lifting the ban across affected regions on Monday and by Tuesday night about 39 percent of West Virginia American Water’s customers were allowed to turn on their taps again. Officials are lifting the ban in a strict, methodical manner so that the system is not overwhelmed by the 30-minute flushing process required for each house. More than 200 restaurants have reopened so far, a spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said on Tuesday, and all but one hospital has running water. Schools in all four affected counties will remain closed today.

The water crisis began on Thursday when officials discovered 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used for coal processing, leaked from a 40,000 gallon tank at the Freedom Industries plant. Some of the chemical flowed into the Elk River. When state inspectors showed up unannounced to investigate a licorice odor wafting across West Virginia’s captial city, company executive Dennis Farrell seemed to brush off any cause for concern. But inspectors quickly discovered the chemical oozing from an above-ground tank and escaping through an old, cracked containment wall. A bag of absorbent material weighed down by a cinder block had failed to stop the flow.

At issue now is how such facilities should be regulated and inspected by state and federal authorities. The terminal with the leak had not been inspected by state officials since 2001, when it was owned by a different company operating under more stringent rules. Freedom Industries purchased the facility last month, according to state officials.

The company’s president, Gary Southern, answered questions at a brief press conference Friday that ended shortly after he complained of being tired. Farrell said he could not discuss the spill: “It’s not that we don’t want to. It’s that one, we’re a little busy, and two, we’re not ready.”

Numerous businesses have already filed suit because of their economic losses. But although the spill was an inconvenience to hundreds of thousands of people, it was hardly catastrophic. The company removed the remaining chemicals at its Elk River site and shipped them to another Freedom Industries’ facility in nearby Nitro, said Jimmy Gianato, state Department of Homeland Security director. Only 14 people exposed to the contaminated water were admitted to the hospital, none in serious condition. No fish kills were reported and there was no impact to aquatic life or wildlife, state officials said.

For millions of people around the world, lack of access to clean water is not a temporary inconvenience, but an everyday fact of life. According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF's Joint Monitoring Programme, an estimated 768 million people drink water from sources inadequately protected from outside contamination, particularly fecal matter. Diarrhea is the leading cause of illness and death in the world, and the majority of diarrhea-related deaths stem from unsanitary bathroom conditions and insufficient access to clean water for drinking and hygiene.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

David Sonju

David is a World Journalism Institute graduate and former WORLD contributor.

Read more from this writer