Early Thursday, a chemical spill along West Virginia’s Elk River contaminated the tap water of as many as 300,000 West Virginia residents across nine West Virginia counties. The chemical spill occurred at a storage facility for Freedom Industries less than two miles from a major water treatment plant.
Freedom Industries produces chemicals that are used widely in mining and steel production.
The leaking storage tank contained the chemical 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol which is used to “treat” coal supplies before they are shipped for burning. According to ThinkProgress, the chemical “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.”
According to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), between 2,000 and 5,000 gallons of the toxic chemical made its way into the water supply.
Residents in the area were immediately warned to stop using tap water, out of fear that the chemicals could severely harm anyone who consumed them. Chemical levels have fallen in the two days since the spill, but the ban remains in effect as the levels in the water are still far too dangerous for residents.
As of Friday, according to The Guardian, at least 670 people had called into the poison control center with reports of vomiting, nausea, skin irritation, and other symptoms.
Freedom Industries issued the following statement the day after the spill:
“Since the discovery of the leak, safety for residents in Kanawha and surrounding counties has been Freedom Industries' first priority. We have been working with local and federal regulatory, safety and environmental entities, including the DEP, Coast Guard, Army Corp of Engineers and Homeland Security, and are following all necessary steps to fix the issue. Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination. At this point, Freedom Industries is still working to determine the amount of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in processing coal, that has been released, as the first priority was safety, containment and cleanup.
Freedom Industries is in the process of setting up an Incident Command Center on site. As more factual information is made available, we will keep you updated.”
Officials have said that, as of right now, there is no way to actually clean the contaminated water, and that the system will have to be completely flushed in order to rid the water supply of the toxic chemical. Residents are now facing a very severe water crisis, with stores quickly running out of supplies of bottled water.
As far as I can tell, nobody is talking about the impacts on area wildlife, which has no bottled water option.
This chemical spill marks the third major environmental disaster in as many weeks, following coal train derailments in North Dakota and New Brunswick in Canada. This latest disaster highlights the significant danger that North America faces as we continue our dependence on fossil fuels, a theme that the Sierra Club pointed out in a Friday press release:
Coal mining communities are faced with the dangers of water pollution from coal mining and pollution every day. This spill pulls the curtain back on the coal industry's widespread and risky use of dangerous chemicals, and is an important reminder that coal-related pollution poses a serious danger to nearby communities. Americans, and the people of West Virginia, deserve greater accountability and transparency about coal industry practices.
The only question that remains is how many more disasters, how many more lives have to be put in jeopardy before we are able to abandon dirty, dangerous energy sources?