Think of it as another practice run for local and federal crisis management. The chemical spill into the Elk River that breached the containment walls of one of Charleston, W.Va’s largest industries last week has closed schools, stopped commercial flights and converted the state capital’s downtown core to a “ghost town.” It’s also painted an unnervingly clear picture of what can happen to a city’s infrastructure when a chemical spill shuts down its main commercial facilities.
After evidence of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), a foaming agent that is used to clean coal of impurities, was picked up by local water distribution plant West Virginia American Water last Thursday, state and county officials went into high drive to alert some 300,0000 residents of the pollution and to close access to drinking water. Hotels shut off water and warned residents not to use tap water to drink, bathe or wash their clothes until the alert was lifted. Restaurants closed, unable to wash dishes or supply coffee. WiFi-equipped facilities, stores and commercial services lost business.
A state of emergency was declared Thursday by Gov. Earl Ray Tomlin, and the National Guard was called in immediately to assist with distributing bottled water. Following assessment by state and county authorities, President Obama issued an emergency declaration on Friday. The declaration will free up a variety of federal programs and resources to help with local needs.
But what neither the state nor federal authorities have been able to do is to return business to Charleston’s otherwise active commercial core. Dining is at the heart of Charleston’s tourism business, with more than a dozen restaurants centered in and around the affected area. The spill has also cut short much of the travel opportunities to the city, with hotels and bed and breakfast inns unable to provide any safe washing facilities. After the tap water ban went into effect, commercial flights were suspended temporarily due to an agreement between airlines and a flight crew union that requires certain levels of service to be available at travel destinations. Some flights have not been reinstated.
According to Charleston’s Convention and Visitor Bureau, approximately 66 percent of the state’s population lies within 500 miles of the city, which is a tourism destination due to its year-round outdoor activities. It is also near popular fly-fishing locations on the Elk River.
The tap water ban affects nine counties in a widespread area west of the spill. Authorities aren’t saying how long the water ban will last, but while daily measurements show the chemical is decreasing in the water source, there is still a concern of toxic leaching from the shoreline. Readings must be consistently below one part-per-million. State officials haven’t released the current levels, but said as of this weekend that they may still have a ways to go before the ban could be lifted.
MCHM is toxic if inhaled, ingested or exposed to the skin. According to information released to the public by Eastman, which manufactures and sells the product, no information was available about acute symptoms of ingestion. However, information supplied by the National Institutes of Health website Toxnet contradicts this. According to federal law, Freedom Industries was required to file a report with the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management on the status of the toxic chemical. At the present time, there has been no official comment issued on the status of that report, but the MCHM was found to be leaking from a container. The company did not have a permit to discharge the chemical into the river.
Local agencies and media outlets have been publishing a number of advisories to help residents cope with the water ban, including facilities outside the nine counties that have laundromats, restaurants and other facilities to use. The average drive is about 35 miles. Television station WOWK-TV has been publishing a list of places to obtain drinking water both in the state capitol and other municipalities in the nine counties, and businesses outside the affected area have opened their doors to assist with showers and water access.
While authorities are confident that levels of MCHM will decrease in the drinking source and the water ban will be lifted, there has been no statement yet on the environmental effects of the leak, which officials estimate at more than 7,000 gallons.
Photo credits: With gratitude to Foo Conner, Charleston, W.Va.