Thursday, January 16, 2014

Toxic Chemical Spilled into Elk River Contaminating West Virginia Drinking Water

West Virginia Freedom Industries chemical spill
Freedom Industries toxic chemical spill into Elk River

On Thursday, January 09, 2014, a toxic chemical was spilled in the Elk River of West Virginia, and contaminated the drinking water supply for nine counties, affecting roughly 300,000 people -- which is 1 out of every 6 West Virginians. Local business owners are the hardest hit by this chemical spill. Business owners have made it very clear that they are losing money from all the lost business, as all local residents have been urged to stay indoors while the chemical spill is dealt with.

Toxic Chemical Spill Affected Nine Counties and Charleston, WV

The nine West Virginia counties affected by the toxic chemical spill are: Jackson, Putnam, Cabell, Lincoln, Logan, Roane, Clay, Kanawha, and Boone. The city of Charleston is located in the epicenter of the counties affected.

Schools, restaurants and local governments all closed in response to the toxic chemical spill drinking water crisis. The White House declared the contaminated Elk River incident a natural disaster. State officials are depending on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for guidance on when the water will be safe again. NPR news reports that the CDC actually did not have a standard of how much of this toxic chemical could be in the water prior to the incident.

The CDC also must consider that some people may have a higher sensitivity to the toxic chemical, when coming up with a safe standard. This takes into account elderly people and infants.

West Virginia Water Contaminated with Toxic Chemical used to Prepare Coal

The toxic chemical that contaminated the Elk River drinking water supply is called “4-methyl-cyclohexane-methanol” (MCHM), and is a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries in Charleston, West Virginia. Thousands of gallons of this toxic chemical spilled into the Elk River after overrunning a containment area that was supposed to prevent this very accident from occurring. The tank from which the chemical leaked is a 40,000 gallon tank, and Freedom Industries is confident that the maximum amount of chemical spill was capped at 5,000 gallons.

 Spill Put ‘Sweet Smell’ in the Air Near the Elk River

Residents and businesses in the affected area noticed an unusually “sweet” smell in the air on Thursday night, very much like cough syrup or licorice. The smell was particularly strong at the Charleston Marriot hotel, which is located only a few blocks from the Elk River. In response to the incident, the Charleston Marriot initially shut off water to all rooms in the hotel, but eventually turned it back on so that guests could flush their toilets.

All stores in the affected areas quickly sold out of bottled water, ice, and juices. As early as Friday night, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (F.E.M.A.) began its delivery of a million liters of water.

How Long Had the Chemical Been Leaking?

The more disturbing piece of this story is that it is unclear how long the chemical had been leaking into the Elk River. The containment area was essentially a concrete wall, which had a breach in it.

According to a fact sheet, the chemical MCHM is known to be harmful is swallowed or inhaled, causing skin and eye irritation.

After the incident, Freedom Industries President, Jeff McIntyre said: “I do not know if the water is not safe,” but believes the chemical is “not lethal” in its strongest form.

As of Tuesday, January 14, 2014, many downtown Charleston businesses and restaurants opened their doors again after the toxic chemical spill. The five-day ban on using the tap water was lifted, although residents may still smell a faint aroma of licorice from the water.


There were no reports of anyone becoming seriously ill as a result of this toxic chemical spill into the Elk River.

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons; by Mike Licht

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