About 300,000 residents of eight counties in West Virginia were told on Thursday not to drink, cook or wash with tap water (but they can still flush it down the toilet or put out a fire with it, officials added — what a relief). About 7,500 gallons of an industrial solvent used to clean coal had seeped from a ruptured holding tank into the Elk River. As of Monday morning, water tests had showed improvement, but the ban is still in place.
One of the most disturbing facts about the story is that the risks to health posed by the chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, are poorly understood. Science writer Deborah Blum reports for Wired.com on her frustrating search for information. David Biello sheds some light on the basic properties of the compound, which is a type of alcohol, in Scientific American.
The stories, and the comments attached, raise other important questions, directly or indirectly. How long had the tank been leaking, and how does such a failure go undetected, even for a day? (There are supposed to be alarms and other safety protocols.) How much of the chemical have residents already ingested, and what health issues could result? How culpable are the tank’s owner, Charleston-W. Va.-based Freedom Industries, and the state of West Virginia? The state gets a lot of grief for under-regulating the powerful coal industry. (And further, in what world does it seem OK to have such chemical tanks just upriver from a water system’s intake pipes? What can the EPA do? Can “Freedom Industries” be cited for its name alone? One can only hope).
Blum also brings up the 35-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, saying it hasn’t been updated and strengthened in all that time. Why? And, of course, what will change as a result of this spill? Unfortunately, it often takes a nightmare to wake people up to the need for action.
UPDATE: Chemical spill muddies picture in a state wary of regulations – The New York Times
UPDATE: Critics say spill highlights lax West Virginia regulations – The New York Times
OP-ED: A predictable water crisis due in part to “audacious influence of industry” – Sunday Gazette-Mail
UPDATE: Hope flows as W. Va. water showing signs of improvement after spill – NBCNews.com
The wait continues for safe tap water in West Virginia – The New York Times
Freedom Industries cited for Elk chemical spill – Saturday Gazette-Mail
Chemical guesswork in West Virginia – Wired.com
How dangerous is the coal-washing chemical spilled in West Virginia? – Scientific American
Thousands of residents warned not to use water – wvgazette.com