West Virginia Chemical Spill Reinforces Vulnerability of Water Supplies

Posted by Neno Duplan

By now, most are aware of the severe chemical spill that affected the public water supply for some 300,000 West Virginians last week. These residents were told not to drink, bathe, or wash their clothes in tap water for an indefinite period, due to a chemical leak at Freedom Industries that contaminated the Elk River.

More specifically, the water supply for central WV was infected by a chemical used to process coal: 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM). When the disaster occurred, officials knew little about the toxicity of this chemical, due to the fact the MCHM is only used in industrial settings and not in consumer products. However, despite MCHM being a bit of a mystery chemical, by the end of last week nearly 800 residents of West Virginia had phoned the poison center about possible symptoms. Hundreds had experienced nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, rashes, and other chemical exposure symptoms since the spill- now said to be the single largest event that the West Virginia poison center has encountered in 20 years.

Many questions about this occurrence are still awaiting responses. Federal authorities, including the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, have opened an investigation. West Virginia local authorities were saying that the company responsible for the chemical, Freedom Industries, may not have acted quickly enough to warn about the leak, and the federal prosecutor in town may pursue a criminal investigation.

Now, almost a week after the chemical leak was discovered, water is beginning to slowly return to the community. However, those who have not been able to drink, cook, or take a hot shower for days likely won’t forget the impacts of this spill anytime soon. The incident has brought attention to the importance of proper hazardous material storage and monitoring, especially when dealing with perhaps our most precious resource: H2O. Some environmental groups are calling this water crisis a reminder that there’s a need for greater oversight of industry in the state, and an example of the price of ignoring important protective policies.

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