Chemical Spill in Tap Water Shuts Down Business in Charleston, West Virginia

Chemical_spill_Foo_Conner_shelvesThink 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 capitol’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.

Chemical_spill_water_distribution_Foo_ConnerBut 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.

Chemical_spill_closed_Foo_ConnerMCHM 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.

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

12 responses

  1. This is a noteworthy article to reinforce the consequences of catastrophic events on local communities. Unfortunately, these are events are common. A train delivering crude oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013. This event is similar in nature to the Charleston chemical spill. Very little media coverage, however, documented the socioeconomic impacts of the crash and spill. Regardless, what the spill in Charleston documents, and what this article misses, is yet another example of the high external costs passed onto the public by fossil fuel production. The chemicals spilled into West Virginia waterways are used to process coal. Not only is coal damaging to human health and the environment when combusted but so are the inputs used in its supply chain.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, there are external costs to coal production. And they are now tied into the impact this, and disasters like the Lac-Mégantic accident produce for communities. Actually, although the latter hasn’t been talked about as much in the States, the impact to the community’s infrastructure and functions has been covered a lot in Canada. And it’s relevant here in the States as well.What I didn’t point out was that it’s also noteworthy that this disaster occurred in a state that has such a strong history of coal production and should have better laws and record-keeping in place due to that experience.

    1. Thanks for your comment Oboe. In this case, it’s good we have backups like bottled water that can be easily transported and given out. But it’s sad that those resources have to be spent for this kind of emergency.

  2. So is there an active clean up? How else will the levels decrease in the drinking source? And what is the timeline before a whole city can be brought back ‘online’?

    1. Hi Calgarybusinesses. My understanding is that some parts of Charleston were back on tap water late Monday Jan. 13. For the most part, cleanup has consisted of letting the levels decrease naturally; in other words, washing it down stream. Of course, this also requires the levels to drop and remain stable in the shoreline (as it leaches from the soil), as well. Not a lot is known about this chemical, as far as ecological impact (perhaps it should be). So we’ll see what the outcome is. Thanks for your great questions.

    1. Hi Cody. Thanks for your question. We’re expecting to have more information up on that in the next few days. I understand things aren’t yet back to normal. Look for a post by Tina Casey tomorrow.

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