Chemical Spill in WV

I wonder how all the environmental laws work in WV.  How is this sort of thing supposed to be prevented by federal or state laws?  Is there a lack of requirements, or a lack of enforcement?  Or neither, meaning this event is acceptable?  How much air and water pollution should be accepted as a cost of modern life?  How much via normal production processes and how much via “accidents”?  (Note:  In industry, there are very few true accidents.  There are unplanned events, but most of those are either known to be at risk of occurring, or are only unknown due to structural incompetence.  This means our choice of laws includes how much built in incompetence we will tolerate.)

I’m sure there are people who spend their careers researching and thinking about these questions.  I wonder how many of them have a chance to affect the lawmaking process.

First the event:

Chemical Leak Causes Water Emergency In West Virginia; Plant Shut Down


January 10, 2014 7:00 AM
Tyler Evert/AP

More than 100,000 customers of one water company in West Virginia have been warned not to drink, cook or wash with the water coming from their taps because of chemicals that seeped into the Elk River near Charleston on Thursday.

The warning covers all or parts of nine counties (). More than 480,000 people live in the affected area — one-quarter of the state’s population. Some surely get their water from wells that were not touched by the spill. But , so many people have been affected that “residents swarmed grocery stores, convenience stores and anywhere else with bottled water Thursday evening, and shelves were quickly depleted.”

of West Virginia Public Broadcasting tells our Newscast Desk that the warning “was issued after methylcyclohexene methanol — a chemical used in a coal-washing process — leaked into the local water supply of the capital city of Charleston and surrounding areas.”

The chemical came from a storage tank at a site run by Freedom Industries, Ashton says. That company produces specialty chemicals for the coal and steel industries.

According to Ashton, “customers were directed not to consume or even use tap water except for flushing and fire protection. [Officials say] consuming the water could cause severe burning in the throat, vomiting and skin blistering.”

Update at 6:35 p.m. ET. Facility Ordered Shut Down

West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection has issued a cease-operations order to the company whose facility is responsible for the leak.

“Freedom industries is required to contain and recover the chemical that leaked into the Elk River,” reports Beth Vorhees of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “The company must submit a report that the tanks are reliable prior to resuming operations.”

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones says it’s a disaster:

“Everything is closing and that means the Marriott Hotel, that means our Town Center Mall. No restaurant is allowed to open because you can’t legally open without water.”

Update at 10:10 a.m. ET. Tests Have Been “Inconclusive”:

“Officials from West Virginia American Water say they have no estimate for when they might be able to begin flushing out the system and that recent tests of the water have proved to be inconclusive,” Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting tells the NPR Newsdesk.

Our original post continues:

Officials of West Virginia American Water, whose customers have been affected, said their treatment facility “which is near the leak site on the Elk River, could handle the leak” and safely treat the water, the Gazette says.

But Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency Thursday — saying that “nobody really knows how dangerous [the leak] could be.”

The governor’s decision was followed overnight by an announcement that federal officials have also declared a state of emergency in the affected areas. That should speed up federal assistance.

The Gazette adds that:

“Water was being transported into the affected counties, and emergency officials said they planned to set up distribution centers.

“Col. Mike Cadle at the state Air National Guard’s 130th Airlift Wing said 51 tractor-trailers loaded with water were headed to West Virginia from a Federal Emergency Management Agency facility in Maryland.”

The affected counties:

— Boone

— Clay

— Jackson

— Kanawha

— Lincoln

— Logan

— Putnam

— Roane

Also: the Culloden area of Cabell County.

Then the aftermath:

‘Just A Few More Days’ And W. Va. Water Emergency May End


January 13, 2014 7:00 AM
Lisa Hechesky /Reuters/Landov

Phrases such as “light at the end of the tunnel” are being used by officials in West Virginia as they give about 300,000 people there hope that they’ll soon be able to use the water that’s supplied to their homes and businesses.

It was last Thursday, , when a chemical used in coal processing leaked into the Elk River near Charleston and then into the region’s water supply system. Residents and businesses across nine counties were warned not to use the water coming from their taps because the chemical — methylcyclohexene methanol — can cause severe burning in the throat, vomiting and skin blistering.

On ‘Morning Edition’: Ashton Marra reports from West Virginia

Since Thursday, state and federal officials have been trucking water into the affected counties. About 10 people, , have been hospitalized “with symptoms consistent with chemical exposure. … An additional 169 people have been treated at hospitals and released.”

Now, as West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Ashton Marra , “we have some sort of idea that things are moving in the right direction. We’re hoping [it may] be just a few more days” before the all-clear is given.

Officials, she said, are testing the water. Once they’re confident that the chemical has dissipated, they’ll then begin flushing the entire nine-county system — a process that will include asking homeowners to run their taps.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, D, said over the weekend that the test results “are trending in the right direction.” That led him, as the Sunday Gazette-Mail reported, to say “we are at a point where we can say that we see light at the end of the tunnel.”

According to the Gazette-Mail:

“Once water is found acceptable for normal use, flushing can begin — zone by zone — to not strain the system. …

“The zones where flushing would begin first include downtown Charleston, the East End Kanawha City, South Charleston, the West Side and North Charleston. Those areas include four major hospitals.

“An Internet based mapping system is being created for customers to search their home or business address to see what zone they are in and if they should begin flushing. It will be available at , but it is not yet live. A 24-hour hotline is also being established, officials announced.”

Life in the affected counties, Ashton says, has been frustrating. “You obviously can’t cook, you can’t clean, you can’t bathe in any of that running water that you typically use. … To have clean clothes, to be able to take a shower — some people are having to drive as much as 40 minutes to find another place to do these things where the water is still running and they’re still able to use it.”

There’s much more about the water crisis and what lies ahead for people in the affected area on West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s website


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