Investigations follow chemical spill

 About 300,000 West Virginians have learned the hard way that we take clean, fresh water for granted. It’s reasonable to expect that what comes out of the tap is safe to drink, cook with and use for bathing, reports the WVMetro News. But since the chemical spill on Thursday, Jan. 9, customers of West Virginia American Water Company in nine counties have had reason to feel like “they’re living in a third world country.”
Elk River
Elk River

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey confirmed on Wednesday that the Office of the Attorney General has initiated an investigation into the chemical leak that rendered water undrinkable and unusable for more than 300,000 West Virginians. At least eight class action lawsuits were filed on Jan. 10 in Kanawha Circuit Court against Freedom Industries for a chemical leak in West Virginia that caused more than 300,000 residents to go without water for days.

“The scale of the effects of this catastrophic event, including the potentially 300,000 effected water customers and potential class claimants, necessitate referral of these cases to the Mass Litigation Panel,” the motion states. Only the Mass Litigation Panel can efficiently handle claims of this span and breadth, according to the motion. West Virginia-American Water Company is also named as a defendant in four of the eight suits.

By Monday evening, after five days without water, officials gave the green light to about 15 percent of West Virginia American Water’s customers. Company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said as much as 25 percent of its customer base could have water by the end of the day. Officials were lifting the ban in a strict, methodical manner to help ensure that the water system was not overwhelmed by excessive demand, which could cause more water quality and service problems.

The toxic chemical spill of 7,500 gallons of Crude MCHM leaked by Freedom Industries into the Elk River should have hit the national headlines as the “most significant environmental disaster in America since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” but it was largely ignored by most televised news stations.

The story was the opening topic of the Colbert Report this week, reports HuffPost, offering a few slurs of West Virginians as usual (unwashed, toothless methheads), but also questioned if “the science is in yet on whether water is actually a basic need for humans.”

Colbert was pointing a finger at the political climate in West Virginia implying that the extraction and chemical industries have a stranglehold on state pols, leaving the DEP (WV Department of Environmental Protection) hopelessly compromised and failing to protect our water.

This is not the first chemical release in the Kanawha Valley. Residents are concerned that more toxic disasters could be on the way.

Steve Brown, 56, lives outside of Nitro in the shadow of chemical plants. Over the years, he’s worked in some of those places, and knows firsthand about the risks and rewards.

“You made enough to support your family,” said Brown in a news report by WV Public Broadcasting. “But you also see what it’s done to the environment. People stay away from fishing in the rivers and streams near chemical plants. You have fish advisories. You know better,” he said. “You just know.”

Calling it a “predictable water crisis,”Angie Rosser, executive director of the W V Rivers Coalition in Charleston, states in an article for Epochtimes:

“Freedom Industries should be held accountable, but that won’t fix the problem. That’s because the Elk River spill wasn’t an isolated accident. It was the inevitable consequence of weak regulatory enforcement over many years.”

The chemical MCMH is used to wash coal and can cause headaches, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, and can also cause a skin rash. But it’s not even the most dangerous chemical in or near West Virginia’s water.

According to DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, beyond a standard license for rainwater runoff, Freedom Industries tank farm does not require any specific permitting. “There was no environmental framework in place to stop the leak in the tank or the secondary containment,” Huffman said. But he believes there should be.

Huffman says the state needs the ability to “dictate in advance” whether a proposed storage facility and the back-up containment systems are reliable. He says Freedom’s leaky tank “could not have passed any sort of reasonable standard.” The tank was more than 50 years old.

“Accidents are going to happen, but the subsequent question is whether such accidents are preventable and if the impact can be mitigated,” Huffman said.

For many West Virginians, the chemical spill signals a dilemma: The industries provide thousands of good paying jobs. But it also poses risks for the communities surrounding them, such as chemical spills and coal mine disasters.

The widow of a coal miner, Bonnie Wireman said, “I hope this doesn’t hurt coal. Too many West Virginians depend on coal and chemicals. We need those jobs.’”

“You won’t find many people in these parts who are against these industries. But we have to do a better job of regulating them,” said Danny Scott, 59, a retired General Electric worker. “The state has a lot to offer. We don’t want to destroy it.”