A Shadow of Doubt over the Elk River

The convenience of turning on the faucet and receiving safe, clean drinking is too often taken for granted. Many are so accustomed to the act that it would be gravely unsettling, at best, to find their water tainted with hazardous chemicals. That nightmare scenario occurred when tap water in Charleston, West Virginia ran pink and emitted a licorice-odor after 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) and 300 gallons of propylene glycol phenyl ether – both chemicals used to clean coal – were spilled into the Elk River. The spill resulted in a 4-day water ban, a $61 million economic impact (not including cleanup costs), hundreds of people visiting the hospital, and ultimately led to a number of new regulations on above ground storage tanks. Although the spill was over a year ago, the safety of local water supplies and the actual effectiveness of the recent regulations remains a topic of concern for many residents of the nine counties affected.


(Credit: The Daily Mail / Marcus Constantino)

The scene in January, 2014 was almost apocalyptic for West Virginians. Over 300,000 residents of the Charleston metropolitan area were left in a state of fear, frustration, and uncertainty as store shelves were emptied, The National Guard began rationing bottled water, and safety information was inconsistent. Even after the water ban was lifted, the color and odor remained in the water, leaving most skeptical as to how safe it really was, and whether they could trust the officials in charge of the situation. A study released by the U.S. Geological Survey found that traces of MCHM remained in Charleston tap water for over six weeks after the spill – though notably diluted. Luckily, no deaths occurred, but over 500 people had visited the hospital for symptoms of MCHM exposure including nausea, vomiting, and rashes.

(Credit: Associated Press / Steve Helber)

(Credit: Associated Press / Steve Helber)

The spill was a result of a dilapidated 48,000 gallon tank, built in 1938 and owned by the chemical storage and distribution company, Freedom Industries. This tank and several others at the Freedom Industries facility were found to have holes worn in their roofs and floor. Days later, Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy, and now the company’s former president is facing charges for lying under oath and fraud. Several other Freedom Industries executives have also been indicted for violating environmental contracts and negligence.

While the water is now safe in Charleston, many West Virginians are still feeling the economic impact of the spill. The water ban forced all but a handful of businesses to temporarily shut down, and many received scant business in the following weeks and months. Retailers claimed the streets were nearly empty after the initial spill, and the peak summer tourist season was significantly slower. Some business owners believe potential visitors were likely discouraged by the events, despite the state adding $1.2 million to the Division of Tourism advertising budget. With what business there was, Charleston restaurants spent unprecedented amounts of money to provide bottled water for their patrons. One establishment claims it didn’t switch back to using tap water for coffee until October, 2014.

Predictably, the effects of the spill were cause for several new legislations. West Virginia Governor Ray Tomblin signed a law in April, 2014 that strengthened regulations on above-ground tanks and required new inspections for existing tanks. A report released in January, 2015 found that over 1,100 above-ground tanks did not meet the new standards. Despite these findings, the state Senate passed a bill early this March that would scale back the law by narrowing inspections to tanks of greater concern. Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Trump claims that the law “went substantially beyond the protection of drinking water,” which he says should be the focus of the law. Ironically, the 48,000 gallon tank responsible for the accident would not meet the 50,000 gallon requirement for inspection.

Politics and grim reports aside, action taken since the spill are certainly signs of progress. Before the Elk River spill, there were no states with regulations to inspect above-ground tanks; but since the accident, Virginia, Indiana, and Georgia have passed new inspection regulations of their own. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) also proposed a bill in Congress that would enact federal regulations. Although it failed to turn heads, Manchin is optimistic that it will have a chance with the new Congress this year.

Cleanup has generally been completed, but the shock and trauma of the episode linger in the form of mistrust and uncertainty. Many West Virginians remain skeptical of the water company, American Water, and believe their negligence and inadequate response holds some responsibility for the spills consequences. Some are still stockpiling water in the event of another accident, and others are concerned about the long-term health effects of their children. Dr. Ben Stout, an aquatic biologist at Wheeling Jesuit University said he “wasn’t very proud of West Virginia’s response to [the spill]” and complained that actions taken did not account for the chemical’s “hydrophobic” nature, which attributed to the difficult cleanup. Numerous others blamed the State’s inconsistent safety instructions for inhalation-related effects during the flush process after the ban was lifted. Though it is understandable that the response to a catastrophe of such magnitude would not be perfect, West Virginians are thoroughly displeased with the state and American Water, and they hope this event can be a lesson for better procedures in future crises.

Between the uncertainty and mistrust residents hold and safety regulations that have become a political football, life will likely never be quite the same for many West Virginians. The Elk River spill is one of countless examples of disastrous problems gone ignored, as well as reparation and prevention efforts that may well be too little, too late. Many would hope that such a disaster will act as a wake-up call for action against corporate environmental negligence.

However, reasonable cynics are more likely to believe the state’s unsatisfactory response, legislative efforts to loosen new regulations, and the spill’s decline in the national conversation are just a few of many signs that the issue will soon be forgotten. Coal production is the primary economy for states like West Virginia, and the livelihoods of countless residents have rested in the coal industry for generations; so any government action that could potentially reduce coal profits is certain to face stern resistance. Hopefully, with the rise of renewable energy sources, these residents will find new economic opportunity and fossil fuels will be phased out thus removing the threat they pose to the environment. Unfortunately, that point is not in the foreseeable future, so only time can tell if a major shift will occur and whether regulations will stay in place and make a meaningful difference.