At least 7,500 gallons of a little-understood chemical known as MCHM spilled… (Steve Helber / Associated…)
Few people in West Virginia had any idea that an obscure company was storing a mysterious coal-washing chemical in tanks overlooking the Elk River, just upstream from a major water treatment plant.
Nor did many realize that no agency had conducted regular inspections of those tanks, even though they are perched on a steep bank that tumbles down to the river northeast of downtown Charleston.
On the morning of Jan. 9, residents complained about a licorice-like odor wafting from the site, operated by a chemical company with the unlikely name of Freedom Industries. When state inspectors arrived to investigate, they discovered that one of the tanks had ruptured and dumped the little-known chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, known as MCHM, into the river.
The inspectors also discovered something else: Freedom Industries had not taken action to stop the leak or report it to authorities, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. As it turned out, there are virtually no regulations governing inspection and maintenance of the storage tanks.
"I can't believe there is not a law against what they did," Charleston's outspoken mayor, Danny Jones, said in an interview. He called the chemical company "a bunch of renegades who have done irreparable harm to this valley."
"Quite frankly," he said, "somebody needs to go to jail."
At least 7,500 gallons of the foaming agent cascaded past a containment area and poured into the Elk River. The spill left more than 300,000 residents of Kanawha County, which includes Charleston, and eight surrounding counties without water after the governor issued an emergency do-not-use order. People couldn't use tap water to drink, bathe, brush teeth or wash dishes or clothes. Boiling it would do no good. The U.S. attorney's office in Charleston has begun an investigation.
It was hardly the first accident to spew dangerous chemicals in West Virginia, where the economy is built on the coal and chemical industries. Despite periodic accidents, the two industries have teamed with politicians in a deeply conservative state (Mitt Romney won 62% of votes in the 2012 presidential election) to fight environmental regulations.
The Department of Environmental Protection last inspected the tanks in 1999, when the site was owned by an oil company. The tanks at the time contained "hazardous waste-generating" oil products, department spokesman Tom Aluise said in an interview. But the tanks now hold chemicals and do not require state inspections because they don't contain material considered hazardous, he said.
Federal inspections are not required because "atmospheric tanks" like the one operated by Freedom Industries are exempt under federal safety inspections because they are not under pressure, cooled or heated — and are not involved in chemical processing, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
"They fall through the cracks," Daniel M. Horowitz, managing director of the board, which has advocated revising the regulations, said in an interview.
Little is known about the possible health effects of MCHM, a solvent used to wash impurities from coal. For days after the spill, state officials were at a loss to explain to residents just what was in the stuff and just how dangerous it might be. Authorities said it was not lethal, but could cause vomiting, nausea and skin, eye and throat irritation.
As bottled water supplies sold out in many areas within hours of the governor's edict, thousands of residents lined up to collect emergency bottled water or fill makeshift containers from water tankers towed in by the West Virginia National Guard. Day after day, residents went without showers as authorities scrambled to test the water to ensure it met the federal safety standard of less than one part per million of the contaminant.
But that standard was challenged by Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. He said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention violated its own procedures by relying chiefly on a lab rat study by the chemical manufacturer to set the standard. He called the study, in which he said MCHM was fed to rats until they died, "crude," "very problematic" and based on "shaky science."
Dr. Vikas Kapil, a senior CDC official, defended the standard as valid. But he added, "There are uncertainties, and there is very little information on this chemical." He said the agency was reviewing a second MCHM study it had obtained.
The CDC on Wednesday warned pregnant women not to drink water, even though state officials have declared the water safe for 150,000 people in some affected districts, based on the CDC standard. Kapil said the warning was issued "out of an abundance of caution."