A chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River has left 300 thousand people in panic over the state of their tap water. State officials encouraged citizens in the nine counties affected to cease cooking and cleaning with tap water, drinking the water or bathing in it. In the weeks since the spill, some “do not use” warnings have been lifted, but questions remain as to how safe the water really is and what effects it might have on its consumers.
On January 9, almost 7,500 gallons of MCHM leaked from a coal facility upstream from one of the state’s leading water treatment and distribution centers. MCHM is a chemical used to clean and prepare coal for combustion and is safe according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as long as it measures to be less than 1 part per million in the drinking water.
West Virginia Governor Earl Tomblin is being criticized for his underwhelming response to the spill, and is quoted saying “I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use it.”
Former mine worker Joe Stanley has commented on the incident, warning people that the drinking water has never been safe. “This MCHM was just one of the chemicals we were told was highly toxic but that we dumped into old mine shafts and slurry ponds, and it’s been seeping into the groundwater for years.”
Stanley encourages others to do what he has been doing for years — avoid tap water and drink only bottled. Governor Tomblin is currently encouraging donations of bottled water from citizens not impacted by the spill and from Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the spill.
The recent incident is the third chemical spill within the last five years to occur in the Kanawha River Valley, an area that is home to many coal miners and supporters of the coal industry. The spill and the panic over water pollution comes at a crucial time as the debate over hydrofracking heats up. Supporters say firmly that hydrofracking will not impact the quality of groundwater, but opponents argue that the risk for water pollution is too great to be ignored.
The spill in West Virginia has shed new light on the potential threat to drinking water and may encourage change in how facilities handle the chemicals they use. Freedom Industries is under scrutiny for how they responded to the leak which was noticed by facility workers before 11 in the morning but was not reported until 5 p.m. Citizens are questioning why it took so long for the spill to be reported as they fear they may have ingested contaminated water in the hours before the leak was reported. Four people were hospitalized for severe nausea and almost 30 others reported feelings of nausea after the leak.
President Obama has approved federal aid for the areas affected by the spill, which will assist the 300,000 people affected until further decisions are made.