West Virginia Spill Reveals Lax Regulation

By McDonald, Caroline | Risk Management, March 2014 | Go to article overview

West Virginia Spill Reveals Lax Regulation


McDonald, Caroline, Risk Management


The chemical spill that polluted a West Virginia river and left hundreds of thousands of residents without water for days could have been prevented. But the state, known to be protective of the coal industry, has been leery of regulatory guidance.

The incident began on Jan. 9, when authorities discovered that 7,500 gallons of chemicals--mostly 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) and PPH (polyglycol ethers), both used to clean coal--had leaked from an aging storage tank owned by Freedom Industries into the nearby Elk River.

Questions arose concerning the tank's close proximity to a water treatment plant and, after the West Virginia American Water Company reported that its water supply had become contaminated, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued a State of Emergency for Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties. "West Virginians in the affected service areas are urged NOT to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing," Tomblin said in a statement. Up to 300,000 residents were affected and hundreds were sickened.

The incident prompted Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to introduce legislation requiring companies responsible for leaks to pay to clean up chemical spills and other pollution. The measure would also provide more funding for states and agencies tasked with cleanup.

"The United States is facing an industrial chemical safety crisis," warned Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the United States Chemical Safety Board, in a Jan. 28 New York Times op-ed.

Moure-Eraso wrote, "It is clear to me, as chairman of the independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, that urgent steps are required to significantly improve the safety of the nation's chemical industry."

About 13,000 facilities nationwide store or process chemicals in amounts hazardous enough to endanger the public, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This estimate, however, understates the scope of the problem. "The West Virginia facility implicated in the recent spill ... would not fall under criteria used by the agency to come up with its estimate," said Moure-Eraso.

Days after the spill, while many West Virginia residents were still without water, some politicians were sounding the alarm against regulation. On Jan. 15, the New York Times reported that Senator and former Governor Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) spoke at an event sponsored by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. …

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