If you’re not familiar with the way things work in West Virginia, you may have been surprised to learn how long it had been since the state inspected a chemical storage facility called Freedom Industries. A spill from the site on the Elk River has contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people in and around the state capital, Charleston. Despite its location 1.5 miles upstream from a water treatment plant that serves 16 percent of the state’s population, the Freedom facility hadn’t been inspected since 1991, when a different company used it for something else.
Now hundreds of thousands of West Virginians have been told not to use their tap water for drinking, bathing, or washing clothes and dishes. (They can still flush their toilets.) While no serious injuries have been reported, hundreds of residents have called the state’s poison hotline complaining of symptoms such as dizziness and nausea.
Last Thursday, a strange licorice-like smell in the air around Charleston was the first sign that something had gone wrong. It turned out that as much as 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, a chemical used in the processing of coal, had leaked into the Elk River, the source of drinking water for nine counties in the state’s most densely populated area. The exact size of the spill isn’t known. Four days into the crisis, state officials still didn’t have a prognosis for when area residents can start using their water again.
Because the facility simply stores chemicals rather than produces them, according to Randy Huffman, cabinet secretary for the state Department of Environmental Protection, the agency had no reason to inspect it. “They simply brought the materials in and they stored them in the tanks and then shipped them out,” MSNBC quoted Huffman as saying. “There’s not an environmental permit at this time that was required.”
That’s despite the water treatment plant just upstream from the Freedom Industries compound (which did apparently have one permit, allowing for stormwater runoff). The latter facility is run by West Virginia American Water, a subsidiary of American Water, a publicly traded company that operates regulated water and wastewater utilities in 16 states. According to the company’s website, “we follow regulations that are set by local authorities, as well as federal standards.”
But environmental advocates say that in the case of West Virginia, those regulations are inadequate.
Jack Spadaro, former director of the Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, W.Va., wasn’t surprised that state regulations left the water supply for hundreds of thousands of people vulnerable to contamination. He sums up his opinion of the Environmental Protection department’s enforcement efforts quickly. “If I were to give you one word, it would be ‘disgraceful,’” Spadaro says. “They are not an aggressive agency. They don’t do their job of protecting the public.”
The spill from the tank farm, according to Spadaro, echoes the water problems that people in rural coalfields of West Virginia have experienced for years. He served as an expert witness on a case against Massey Energy, which accused the coal giant of contaminating the wells used by hundreds of rural West Virginians by pumping 1.4 billion gallons of coal slurry — containing the same sorts of chemicals that spilled into the Elk River — into abandoned mineworks between 1978 and 1987. The case, which crawled through the justice system for seven years, was settled in 2011 for an amount reported to be around $40 million.
“People had well water — sweet, nice well water,” says Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “Then it turned orange and black.” Residents blamed the water for a range of adverse health effects, from kidney failure to neurological problems.
One solution for coalfield communities whose groundwater has been contaminated by toxic slurry is the introduction of municipal water supplies. But the Elk River spill has underlined the reality that piped water can be contaminated, too.
“With the increasing consolidation of drinking water systems into private hands, any sort of pollution spill, large or small, toxic or not, is more likely to have far-reaching impacts affecting potentially hundreds of thousands of people,” Matt Wasson, program director of Appalachian Voices, said in a press release after the spill. “And in this case, add to that the historically lax enforcement of West Virginia regulators over anything to do with the politically powerful coal industry and something like this was bound to happen.”
Just one day before the spill, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had harsh words for federal regulation of the coal industry, saying in his State of the State address, “I will never back down from the EPA because of its misguided policies on coal.”
As reported by Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette, who has been covering the water crisis in depth, Tomblin has been firm in his attempts to distance the coal industry from the Elk River contamination, even though the chemical in question is used specifically for washing impurities from coal in order to ready it for market. In a story on Sunday, Ward wrote:
[A]t the Saturday briefing Tomblin pushed back at a reporter who connected the ongoing water crisis to the coal industry.
“This was not a coal company incident,” the governor shot back. “This was a chemical company incident.”
On Sunday night he did the same.
“This was not a coal company, this was a chemical supplier, where the leak occurred,” he said. “As far as I know there was no coal company within miles.”
Ward’s reporting also raises the question of why American Water officials weren’t more aware of or prepared for a spill:
West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre told reporters on Friday that his company didn’t know much about the chemical’s possible dangers, wasn’t aware of an effective treatment process, and wasn’t even sure exactly how much 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol is too much.
“We’re still trying to work through the [material safety data sheet] to try to understand the risk assessment of this product,” McIntyre said during a Friday-morning news conference. “We don’t know that the water is not safe. But I can’t say that it is safe.”
McIntyre said his company hadn’t at that point had any direct contact with Freedom Industries, and he wasn’t able to identify any previous efforts for the two firms to work together on emergency response planning.
Spadaro says that the spill is bringing a whole new level of attention to coal-processing chemicals and their threat to clean water.
“The difference is here it’s where there are a bunch of middle-class white folks who can’t take a shower,” Spadaro says. “These are people who have been able to ignore what’s happening in the coalfields. I’m hoping this raises awareness of the vulnerability of all people, and of our water. I’m hoping it will make people realize what can happen if we don’t hold government and industry accountable.”
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Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.