West Virginia chemical spill revisited

By Peggy Mackenzie

A year after the chemical spill on the Elk River in Charleston, just upstream from a major water intake facility, there is some good news and bad news to report. The spill, which occurred on Jan. 9, 2014, took away normal drinking water from 300,000 civilians for weeks. Nearly 600 people checked themselves into local hospitals with what federal epidemiologists called “mild” illnesses, such as rash, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

A new report, entitled “Above ground Storage Tanks in West Virginia: A Snapshot,” offers analysis of initial above ground storage tank registrations called for under SB 373, a 2014 water protection law passed unanimously by the West Virginia Legislature and signed by Governor Tomblin last April. The report was prepared by environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies and the nonprofit West Virginia Rivers Coalition; it provides an analysis of the more than 47,000 tanks registered state-wide by mid-December, 2014.

Among the major findings:

• Nearly half of the tanks are located within a thousand feet of surface water.

• About three quarters of the tanks are owned by the oil and gas industry.

• Five of the six counties with the most tanks are clustered in the north-central section of the state – Doddridge, Ritchie, Harrison, Lewis, and Gilmer counties. Kanawha County has the fifth-most tanks.

• Sixteen tanks contain MCHM, the chemical involved in contaminating the drinking water supply across a nine-county area of West Virginia in January 2014.

• More than 12,100 tanks did not pass their initial inspections, and only 55 percent of registered tanks have been certified as fit for service.

“The good news,” said Downstream Strategies President Evan Hansen, “is that for the first time we have this data available about all tanks located across the state. As the Legislature considers adopting new above ground storage tank rules, it can use the tank database to inform its decisions.”

“It’s remarkable to see the number of tanks so close to rivers or streams,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “So while it’s appropriate to look most closely at tanks closest to existing drinking water intakes, focusing protection efforts solely on those zones would miss thousands of tanks that could easily harm our water supplies.”

According to an FBI affidavit that was unsealed on Wednesday, January 14, Freedom Industries’ employees knew about the problem that led to the chemical spill for years before the spill happened. The document also states the tank that the chemical MCHM leaked from was never properly inspected, and was supposed to have been taken out of service in 2008.

The West Virginia Attorney General’s Office released a report with similar findings on Thursday, Jan. 15.

“Our hope is that [our investigation] can help to provide an understanding of what happened so that this type of crisis will never happen again,” said WV Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Six former Freedom Industries executives are facing charges related to the January 2014 chemical leak into the Elk River, Morrisey said.

West Virginia American Water has also issued a statement following the announcement of Freedom Industries, Inc. stating “[The] indictments send a powerful message about the importance of our water supply. Vigorous enforcement of the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations is imperative to protecting public water supplies and public health and avoiding incidents like the Freedom Industries spill, which… was completely preventable with proper maintenance and secondary containment.”

On the other hand, in year since 10,000 gallons of MCHM, a coal industry chemical leaked into the Elk River, numerous small businesses continue to pay to stay in business.

In the month immediately following the spill, it was estimated that the impacted nine-county area took a $61 million economic hit – a figure representing approximately 24 percent of the economic activity during that time. Studies looking at the long-term economic impact of the spill have not yet been released, but some Charleston business owners believe the spill is still costing them, both money-wise and otherwise, according to WSAZ.com (News Channel 3).

Business owners say business is still worse than ever. The summer season was particularly slow, possibly due to families afraid of vacationing in the city home to the historic chemical spill. The state government apparently suspected this, injecting $1.2 million into the state’s Division of Tourism – more than doubling its spring advertising campaign budget – in the months following the spill. But locals think it wasn’t enough for Charleston, according to an in depth article at thinkprogress.org.

In an interview with West Virginia’s State Journal, Keeley Steele said she had to bring in a system called Drinkable Air, a machine that creates drinking water from humidity in the air, just so she could keep water on the tables of Bluegrass Kitchen, one of the only open businesses in Charleston just four days after the chemical spill. She said the restaurant didn’t stop using bottled water for coffee until “probably October.” Combined with the cost of other alterations, the business lost about $40,000, she said.

“I’m not real optimistic, really, about seeing any of that money,” Steele said.

Additionally, business owners noted that the chemical spill might not have been the sole reason for the dwindling of businesses in Charleston. Water contamination issues have been prominent in the area for decades and were already driving people away, along with the steady decline of the state’s coal industry. The rise of internet shopping has probably also contributed to some of the retail stores’ losses, stated Nancy Ward, owner of a 27-year-old retail shop in Charleston called Cornucopia. “Business has never come completely back since the spill,” said Ward.

New studies are continuing to identify oversights in the state government and Centers for Disease Control’s response to the disaster. A study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, looked at the health problems reported by residents immediately after the spill and found that the CDC didn’t consider the impacts exposure to the fumes of Crude MCHM. Another report by U.S. Geological Survey researchers detected crude MCHM in the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky, meaning the chemical traveled at least 390 miles downriver from the spill.

It is hoped with the passage of SB 373, a bill that would regulate above ground chemical storage tanks, people will regain their confidence in the state’s ability to protect their drinking water supply and the environment, even if it means upsetting the coal and chemical industries. Still, people are not optimistic.

“Things will never go back to the way they were when you lose that level of trust,” said Ward.

 

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