Chemical Spill Leaves Thousands Without Tap Water

Joel Achenbach, Washington Post, January 12, 2014

Today marks the fifth day of an 8-county state of emergency in West Virginia after a chemical spill affected the water supply of nearly 300,000 residents.

The water supply crisis began early January 9 when people registered a powerful odor like black licorice eminating from their taps. Two state employees tracked the leak to Freedom Industries, which owns a row of storage tanks along the Elk River.  The regional water system intake is downstream by a little more than a mile and on the same side of the river as the tanks containing the chemicals.  The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, had leaked from an inch-wide hole in the bottom of one tank, pooled in a containment area, and then seeped through a porous cinder-block retaining wall, down the bank and into the river.

The West Virginia American Water Co. sent out a "do-not-use order" late Thursday afternoon, but by then people had been drinking, cooking with, and bathing in the impacted water.  Details on human health risks of the chemical are not being reported and are apparently not widely available.  

(Read the complete article here.)

Chris Mooney, Mother Jones, January 13, 2014

The spill and ensuing drinking water crisis have drawn attention to the system that regulates the production of chemicals in the US: the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA.  According to Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund who specializes in chemical regulation, "Here we have a situation where we suddenly have a spill of a chemical, and little or no information is available on that chemical."

According to EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is one of a large group of chemicals that were already in use when the law was passed, and so were "grandfathered" under it. This situation "provided EPA with very limited ability to require testing on those existing chemicals to determine if they are safe," she says. There are more than 60,000 such grandfathered chemicals, according to Johnson.

(Read the complete article here.)