Chemical Spill Causes Water Emergency in West Virginia

On Jan. 9, a chemical spill in West Virginia contaminated the Elk River and left 300,000 people unable to use their own tap water. 7,500 gallons of the chemical 4-methylclohexane (MCHM) methanol –which is used to wash coal — leaked from a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries into the Elk River and the West Virginia American Water Company’s water supply.

The spill left residents of nine counties around Charleston, including Boone, Caball, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane restricted to bottled water and the water supply of other areas and organizations like FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).

According to West Virginia’s Poison Control Director Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, little is known about the possible effects of this chemical “because it hasn’t been adequately studied.” The known symptoms of MCHM are vomiting, nausea, rashes, dizziness, diarrhea, headaches, and red or irritated skin. Ten people have been admitted to hospitals because of the effects of the chemicals, but they were not life threatening cases.

Freedom Industries has recently filed for bankruptcy in an attempt to stop multiple lawsuits that are forthcoming from businesses forced to shut down and individuals whose health was compromised by the events of the spill. Restaurants, flower shops, and schools all had to shut down because of the incident, and hospitals were forced to resort to emergency methods to conserve water. Establishments were bombarded and bottled water was swept off shelves by consumers trying to stock up on a clean supply of water for them and their families.

In documents connected to the bankruptcy, Freedom Industries claims that “…a waterline burst during last week’s frigid temperatures, the ground beneath a storage tank froze, and some kind of object punctured its side causing it to leak”. The tank was bought used by Freedom Industries last month, and had not been inspected by the Department of Environmental Protection since the 1990s.

Department Spokesman Tom Aluise said “…the tanks now hold chemicals and do not require state inspections because they don’t contain material considered hazardous.”

Since the spill, in order to protect water supply more efficiently there has been a bill introduced that, if passed, will require state inspections of above ground chemical storage facilities. While Freedom Industries has claimed bankruptcy, they will still be held responsible for damages and clean up of chemical spill.

On Monday several counties were cleared to flush out their water systems and resume use of water, though not all counties have been cleared and using caution is still advised. Over forty “Honor the Water” vigils were held nationwide and in Canada, Peru, and New Zealand on Tuesday, to show solidarity with West Virginia. Last week, the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton collected gallon jugs of water, baby wipes, and paper plates from Shenandoah Valley residents to deliver to counties still severely affected by the spill.

-Devon Fore, Style Editor


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