West Virginia chemical leak leaves 300,000 without water

23:48 PM | January 20, 2014 | —Lindsay Frost

Spill: The red area shows the water where MCHM was detected as of 14 January. Blue areas were clear.

A chemical spill at Elk River, WV, on 9 January caused state officials to impose severe water-use restrictions to over 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties. State officials imposed the restrictions on that day after discovering that an estimated 7,500 gal of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) had leaked out of a storage tank about a mile upriver of Freedom Industries (Charleston, WV), a specialty chemical company. The company has not commented on the incident. MCHM is used to clean coal.

As of 15 January, more than one-third of the affected customers had water restored.

Eastman Chemical is believed to be the sole producer of MCHM in the United States and says it sold the product to Freedom Industries. “Since learning of the release from Freedom Industries’ facility, Eastman has been providing information and assistance to local, state, and federal agencies and emergency responders to facilitate spill response efforts,” a company spokesperson says.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; Washington) has set the standard of 1 part/million as a safe concentration of crude MCHM in drinking water. Levels of the chemical must remain below this threshold for over 24 hours of testing before the water company can begin flushing the system, the CDC says. The state’s governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, said on 12 January that 8 of 18 recent test results tested above 1 part/million. Some of the earliest tests showed concentrations as high as 3 parts/million. As of 14 January, “West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, West Virginia American Water, and US Army Corps of Engineers announced that extensive testing produced results showing that levels of MCHM are below 1 part/million,” according to West Virginia American Water.

“Based on available data, Eastman does not disagree with the assessment that below 1 part/million level recommended by state and federal agencies is safe,” the company says.

On 11 January, an investigative team from the US Chemical Safety Board (Washington) was deployed to the Elk River spill scene. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources states that 122 people had sought treatment by 11 January for symptoms including nausea and vomiting, though health hazards from the chemical are not publicly available in its Material Safety Data Sheet. The Environmental Defense Fund says the incident highlights the need for US chemical management reform, since little is known about the chemical’s health impacts.