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Tina Casey headshot

West Virginia Chemical Spill Update: Governor Pleads For More Help


Almost three weeks after the notorious West Virginia chemical spill at the Freedom Industries storage facility contaminated the entire water supply over a nine-county area, you'd expect the crisis to be winding down, especially since authorities declared the water safe to drink days ago. However, it just keeps getting worse. In the latest developments, the amount spilled was revised upwards, water quality issues are still ongoing, and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has written to the Federal Emergency Management Agency pleading for long-term help.

We noted before that the West Virginia chemical spill provides an unfortunate textbook case for what not to do in private sector hazard mitigation and disaster planning. The spill originated from private property, and it affected a privately-owned water supply system, the owner of which, West Virginia American Water, was also woefully unprepared for potential hazards to its Elk River intakes.

Combined with gaping holes in government oversight, the result was a perfect storm of corporate irresponsibility.

New developments in the West Virginia chemical spill

To recap briefly, on Jan. 9, crude MCHM - a foaming agent used to wash coal - was discovered to be leaking into the Elk River from a Freedom Industries storage tank, just 1.5 miles above the water intakes for West Virginia American.

By the time the alert went out, the chemical had entered the nine-county system, including the state capital of Charleston -- affecting hospitals, schools, government agencies and businesses as well as 300,000 residents. The alert advised using water only for flushing toilets, forcing those affected onto bottled water.

Last week, officials began declaring the water safe to drink, but hospital visits with chemical-related symptoms consequently skyrocketed, indicating that the all-clear was premature.

Also last week, a company official privately admitted to investigators that another chemical, "PPH, stripped," was involved in the spill.

This week, the bad news continued on Jan. 27, when the West Virginia Gazette reported that Freedom Industries revised its estimate of the spill amount upwards, from 7,500 gallons to a new estimate of 10,000 gallons (for many more updates, follow West Virginia Gazette reporter Ken Ward, Jr. on Twitter, @Kenwardjr).

The result, predictably enough, is that nerves are still on fire throughout the area as reflected in a Town Hall meeting on Monday night over continuing water quality issues, leading to an impassioned letter from Gov. Tomblin.

Letter from Gov. Tomblin to FEMA

Gov. Tomblin's letter to FEMA is well worth a read in its entirety. It outlines in devastating detail the severe, long-term impact that a relatively minor incident -- and a highly preventable one, at that -- can have over a widespread area.

Here is a key excerpt:

One source has estimated that hotels and restaurants have lost $1,000,000 in revenue a day while other businesses have had to close part of their operation...A detailed analysis of this event is not possible at this time, but I am certain it will show a total economic loss for the citizens, businesses, and governments of this area that will exceed the direct emergency protective measures we are providing many times over.

Tomblin also addresses the consequences of early communications failures and the apparently premature all-clear declaration, stating that:
...many people no longer view their tap water as safe and are continuing to demand bottled water to meet their potable water needs. It is impossible to predict when this will change, if ever.

With Freedom Industries now filing for bankruptcy, once again taxpayers will be left holding the bag for a company's disengagement in its host community -- reflecting the out-of-date mindset that job creation and environmental protection are opposing forces.

Somewhat ironically, as this disaster has been unwinding in West Virginia, a swing in the opposite direction has been occurring in Philadelphia, as that city enters a new stage in a long term partnership with EPA to embrace environmental protection as a a vital matter of economic development and quality of life.

Image: Freedom Industries tank farm (cropped) by iwasthere

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Readers please note: In an earlier post on this topic (here), we stated that Freedom Industries was the distributor for a chemical manufactured by Georgia Pacific Chemicals, a company under the Koch Industries umbrella. We did not state or imply that the GP chemical was involved in the spill, but readers may have inferred that the chemical was stored on the property. GP has provided clarifying detail (here).

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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