One Year After West Virginia Chemical Spill, Residents Wonder:  Is Another Disaster on the Horizon?

The front page of the the Charleston Gazette on January 9, 2014. (Photo: @gregmoorewv/Twitter)

One Year After West Virginia Chemical Spill, Residents Wonder: Is Another Disaster on the Horizon?

Meanwhile, evidence of Freedom Industries' role in the spill has racked up

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the massive Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia, in which a leak at a coal industry facility led to the contamination of drinking water for nine counties and hundreds of thousands of people.

While evidence of Freedom Industries' culpability in the crisis continues to mount, local residents and environmental advocates fear that not enough has been done to prevent a similar disaster in the future.

The January 9, 2014 spill of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM)--a chemical foam used to wash coal--from a Freedom Industries chemical storage tank occurred just 1.5 miles from a water treatment and distribution plant, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency. For 4 to 9 days, about 300,000 West Virginia residents were ordered not to use the public water supply. Noting that "one indicator of the contaminated water is the odor of the water," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin warned at the time: "Please don't drink, don't wash with, don't do anything with the water."

Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. recalls:

It was an unprecedented event in West Virginia. The water company estimated that 300,000 people at homes and businesses in parts of nine counties were without clean water. Hundreds of residents sought medical attention for everything from nausea and vomiting to headache, sore throat and a cough.

For some residents, the "do not use" order stayed in effect for more than a week. For others, concerns about what was in the water remained for long after that. One survey showed that, as late as April, only a third of Kanawha Valley residents had resumed drinking their tap water.

More than two dozen citizen action groups planned to host a series of events Friday to commemorate the spill, including education workshops, a candlelight vigil and the premiere of a documentary produced by a local filmmaker.

In a blog post for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia resident Rebecca Roth writes:

A year ago, after the water crisis, we tried to do our best to keep our family safe, but it was hard, especially with additional new, and sometimes conflicting, information. Our family followed the flushing directions for our house's pipes to a T, but afterwards we learned that children shouldn't have been around during the flush and that the windows should have been opened, information that we didn't have at the time. We have no idea how dangerous this stuff is, this stuff that got into our water and shouldn't be there.

...The urge to feel that things are back to normal is irresistible, and maybe everything looks normal now. But I'm not convinced that things have changed significantly. I'm not convinced that it couldn't happen again. We need to make sure that the corporations that can impact our water supply are playing by the rules and are being held accountable. We need a renewed commitment by our elected officials to rebuilding our water infrastructure. We need regular updates about medical monitoring, the current state of the water, the success rate of the filters, and when we will get more than one source for the water supply that 300,000 of us rely on. We've lost the trust that people in other places have in their water systems and we want to get it back.

In the intervening year, evidence of Freedom Industries' role in the spill has racked up.

  • In July, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board determined that an egregious lack of oversight by Freedom Industries, which used tanks damaged by corrosion to hold toxic materials, caused the disastrous spill.
  • Federal documents unsealed earlier this week suggest that Freedom knew about serious problems with the spill-containment dikes at the company's Elk River facility years before the leak. As Ward Jr. reports for the Gazette: "Freedom was 'long aware' of 'inadequacies' with the containment dike around Tank 396--the one that leaked MCHM and other chemicals into the Elk on Jan. 9, 2014--and also knew the tank was old, had not been properly inspected and needed to be replaced, according to an FBI affidavit made public late Wednesday in U.S. District Court."
  • On Thursday, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey released a report (pdf) that outlined similar findings regarding a long history of Freedom officials knowing about problems at the Elk River site, but not taking action to fix them. For example, the state investigation found that Freedom employees and outside consultants "warned of a potential catstrophic incident due to poor tank conditions and design problems for years, and in some cases offered solutions" that were never acted upon.

Prosecutors in December accused Freedom Industries Inc.--which has since filed for bankruptcy--along with its former president Gary Southern and other officers of negligence and fraud related to the spill.

On Thursday, one day before the anniversary of the incident, three former Freedom executives plead not guilty to criminal violations concerning the leak. Their trial has been set for March.

A separate 'After Action Review' (pdf) conducted by the Tomblin administration and released Friday says state officials struggled to communicate effectively with the public following the spill, and notes that certain types of above-ground storage tanks were "inadequately regulated."

Later this month, the local organization People Concerned About Chemical Safety will host "Looking Forward: Summit on Chemical Safety in West Virginia," at which participants will "learn about successful models implemented in other states and solutions that address disproportionate impacts of chemical releases on communities of color and low-income communities" and discuss ways to prevent water contamination in the future.

"Right now, politicians, industry, and activists all share the same question: Will people stay involved?" writes Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. "Maintaining drinking water protections will depend on people showing up. The special interests who would dismantle our water protections know this. They know when the crisis has passed, and people go back to attending to their everyday lives--it's easy to lose sight of what's at stake. Out of sight, out of mind. We know from history, water protections will backslide when we're not paying attention."

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