Too soon to declare water supply safe

The Freedom Industries chemical spill story has drawn international attention, but researchers say it is hardly unique, since coal mining and processing have damaged West Virginia’s drinking water for years in ways often ignored before now.
water supply affected areas
Map of affected area

“Hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands, of homes in the southern part of the state, where people had problems with the water source they had, is largely due to the impacts of mining,” Goodwin said.

Earlier this week it was discovered that the volume of the toxic spill was far greater than was originally reported. The 7,500 gallons has been raised to 10,000 gallons of Crude MCHM along with the PPH which also went unreported until it was too late.

Now we are hearing that a West Virginia state official told legislators on Wednesday that he “can guarantee” some residents are breathing in a cancer-causing substance due to the chemical spill that occurred earlier in January.

In a recent meeting with a state legislative committee on water resources, Scott Simonton of the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board said that his tests have detected formaldehyde in water samples contaminated by the recent Elk River chemical spill.

“I can guarantee that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing fornlaldehyde,” Simonton said. “They’re taking a hot shower. This stuff is breaking down into formaldehyde in the shower or in the water system, and they’re inhaling it.”’

As Simonton noted, the chemical mixture that leaked into the Kanawha Valley’s water supply – a combination of seven substances used to wash coal that’s called “Crude MCHM” – is partly composed of methanol. When this chemical breaks down, it turns into formaldehyde, a carcinogen linked to diseases such as respiratory cancer.

“It”s frightening, it really is frightening,” the Charleston Gazette quoted Simonton telling state lawmakers. “What we know scares us. and we know there’s a lot more we don’t know.”

So far. West Virginia lawmakers are crafting a narrow response in clean water protections. They’re discussing a bill [Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act] to tighten the regulation of above ground storage tanks, but many of their constituents want much wider reforms.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has ordered Freedom Industries to begin the process of dismantling, removing and properly disposing of all of its above ground storage tanks, as well as associated piping and machinery, at its Etowah River Terminal in Charleston by March 15, 2014. The Etowah River Terminal, located on the Elk River, is the site of the Jan. 9 chemical spill.

The Freedom spill is the third major chemical incident in the Kanawha Valley in five years, according to Maya Nye, spokesperson for People Concerned About Chemical Safety. She says tightening the rules on storage tanks might have prevented the Freedom spill, but it wouldn’t be enough to protect residents from the many pollutants that slip through the loopholes. “The state doesn’t enforce the rules now on the books.

and doesn’t take enough input from citizens, either,” she said. “We need to take a comprehensive look at chemical safety – not just in this valley, not j ust in this state, but across the country.”

“Our state is so dependent on chemicals, is so dependent on coal, that it seems like it”s easy for our government to turn a blind eye sometimes, when it’s the industry that feeds us,” Nye maintained. “And I understand that.”

But she calls it unwise in the long term.

West Virginians have had to tolerate a kind of tension between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the coal industry which brings in $3.5 billion to the state. Eighty-eight thousand jobs come with it. It”s a difficult compromise to give up clean drinking water for jobs. The crisis brought many WV residents to stage a protest in front of Charleston’s Capitol during the first days after the spill. But three weeks after the chemical spill, the residents in all nine counties affected by the spill are still in need of clean water deliveries.

Wheeling Jesuit University Biology professor Ben Stout said heavy metals, including lead and arsenic are dangerous and often invisible. “They’re odorless, colorless, and tasteless, so you can be consuming them unknowingly,” Stout said. The grim truth is that the first indication scientists get of drinking water problems is often a spike in illness. And he noted even that sign does not work well in a rural area.

“If you’re in an Atlanta neighborhood [where a cancer cluster is suspected], and it’s sitting right beside another neighborhood that’s not a cancer cluster, then you have something to compare it to. But when you have small communities, a cancer cluster could be five people out of a hundred,” Stout said.

The industry has argues that it operates in accord with extensive and rigorous permitting guidelines. However, federal figures cited by theAP indicate that mining has tainted hundreds of state waterways and groundwater supplies.

Pennsylvania mining executive Cliff Forrest paid roughly $20 million to acquire Freedom Industries on Dec. 31, 2013. One week later it became the topic of headline news. Maintenance for the facility was in the works but disaster struck first. The new owner “had the misfortune of buying a plant j ust before all hell broke loose.” Freedom Industries has been hit by at least 20 lawsuits related to the spill and has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.


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