Tuesday, January 14, 2014

West Virginia Chemical Spill Coverage (Part 1) - What happened?

Part 2: Understanding the relationship of West Virginia to the coal industry.

Last Thursday, a chemical spill in southern West Virginia resulted in 300,000 residents being told not to use municipal water. The affected area includes the capitol of West Virginia, and its largest city, Charleston. Over the weekend and even until today, much of the area is still under "do not use" orders from the local water company. Many residents are being told their water is now safe after flushing their system by running all faucets and water appliances for several minutes. However, several of these residents are still reporting a licorice-smell to their water that has hung over the city since the chemical leak.

So why does some grad student in South Bend, Indiana, care about this chemical spill? To many at the University of Notre Dame, West Virginia may mean little more than that school the Irish beat in 1988 to win the National Champion in college football. However, to me, West Virginia is my home, my friends, and my family. I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia. My parents and siblings live there. And this weekend, I feel I began to appreciate very differently what West Virginia means to me, and why its suffering affects me in a very real way, despite being a long, lonely 7 hour drive away. And as I've spoken with friends, I've realized just how poorly reported this whole situation has been. In this, I feel it is very important to help others understand exactly what to make of this story.

I realize many of you won't feel directly affected by this story, and may find it uninteresting. Even my fellow writers may question my decision to write three articles on a topic that is largely alien to our readers. But I think there are important lessons to learn from this chemical spill in West Virginia about energy policy, government regulation, the corrupting influence of money in politics, and, most importantly to me now, the meaning of community. Ultimately, I felt I had too much to say on this issue for one article, so I have broken my coverage of this story into three parts. The first part you are reading now will explain in detail what exactly happened in West Virginia, and what the affects of this chemical spill are. Hopefully, it will correct many misconceptions reported in the news. In part two, I will address my feelings on how and why this chemical spill occurred, as well as why I think this is a bigger story. In part three, I will try to address solutions to ensure these things don't happen again in the future.

The red diamond shows the location of the Freedom
Industries storage facilty. The Elk River flows southwest
towards the city of Charleston.
Last Thursday afternoon, all news and radio stations in Charleston began interrupting broadcasts, telling residents across southern West Virginia not to use municipal water in several counties. Large quantities of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol were leaked from a Freedom Industries storage facility on the Elk River. 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is a chemical used to clean dirt, clay, and ash from coal before it is transported to power plants for burning, Charleston, WV, is settled where the Elk River meets the Kanawha River (pronounced "kuh-naw'. Yes, just two syllables by local tradition). Several counties use the Elk River intake plant as their municipal water, even beyond Charleston. However, the water intake and treatment plants were downriver of Freedom Industries storage facility.

The health risks of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol are not particularly well researched. A report analyzing the material safety data sheet (MSDS)  found the form incomplete and lacking any information on the human health effects. The only health figure is the dose required to kill rats. No information on long-term effects, if they exist, is presented, nor is there any information on possible ecosystem impacts readily available, though as of my writing this no fish kills have been reported, and while hundreds have apparently been seen in emergency rooms, only 14 have been admitted to hospitals.  Because the chemical does not easily dissolve in water, the pollutant has been hard to detect and track inside the water system due to inconsistent distribution.

The 47,000 gallon storage tanks owned and operated by
Freedom Industries for  4-methylcyclohexane ethanol along
the Elk River. This is upriver of Charleston's water intake and
treament facilities. One of these tanks leaked an
estimated 7,500 gallons of the chemical into the Elk River
As the news spread Thursday evening, residence rushed to local grocery stores buying up bottled water, dry food items, microwaveable meals, etc. While it wasn't a panic, a friend of mine noted that it took her 30 minutes after hearing the news to drive to her local grocery store, and when she arrived, they had no more water. While water would be shipped in by FEMA and various other groups over the weekend, many residents were left without access to potable water for much of that time.

Exacerbating this problem, much of the affected area is largely rural, isolated, and poor. Many do not have access to the internet, and so the only warning they received initially was the licorice smell from the spilled chemical when they turned their taps on. These same people are likely to be the farthest away from water distribution centers. West Virginia American Water apparently did not begin making phone calls to customers warning them until Friday morning, even though the "do not use" order was issued Thursday afternoon. Despite this, and thankfully, it appears dangers of the chemical were not as severe as immediately feared, and no life-threatening injuries or illnesses have been reported.

However, during this weekend, restaurants and stores were closed across the area, meaning people who work hourly lost wages they depend on. Due to the unclear, and often misreported, effects of exposure, many visited hospitals despite not showing symptoms, taxing staff and facilities, while hundreds were treated for rashes and mouth and eye irritation. While the short term health cost of this spill appeared thankfully small, the economic costs to the state are still unclear. Further, it is unclear what, if any, long term effects will emerge. Ultimately, while this spill didn't overnight turn southern West Virginia into a Mad-Max style hellscape, it also certainly did no favors to its citizens.

People lined up in South Charleston to get water.
via New York Times
To its credit, FEMA and the state of West Virginia, by all accounts, have responded fantastically to this disaster. None of my friends have told me they lacked access to safe drinking water, which certainly mitigated much of the damage this disaster could have caused. However, it is still unclear exactly what this is going to cost the taxpayers of West Virginia, which already have the second lowest median income in the United States.

For many in the state, it is still unclear how much longer they must suffer without municipal water. West Virginia American Water has setup an interactive map that shows which areas are cleared to begin flushing water, but much of the map remains under a "do not use" restriction. Further, several friends have told me their water still smells strongly of licorice despite being in the "safe water" zones. These people have gone nearly a week being unable to even shower or wash dishes and clothing. As yet, for residents further way from the city center of Charleston, there is no clear time frame for when they can expect a return to normalcy.

Tomorrow, I will write an article explaining why this spill should have never happened, but also why it was bound to happen eventually. In doing so, I hope you'll come to understand the nature of government and culture in West Virginia, and how entrenched political power can override even the most basic functions of society.

1 comment:

Sophia Wright said...
This comment has been removed by the author.