Calls For Legislation, Investigations Follow W. VA Water Contamination

Lawmakers and other West Virginia officials are calling for investigations and new laws following a chemical spill that contaminated water in and around Charleston for part of January, as the company responsible for the spill faces a growing number of environmental tort lawsuits.  

On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a public hearing on the coal-processing chemical spill that prevented more than 300,000 residents and businesses from using the water in the Charleston area for several days last month.

The hearing followed the introduction in late January of legislation increasing regulatory requirements for chemical storage facilities.

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West Virginia officials support the legislation, which would increase state inspections for storage tanks and require that facilities storing those chemicals put an emergency plan into place. The state has already passed similar legislation.

West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant asked the senate for a 10-year study into the effects of the spill which dumped thousands of gallons of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), a chemical used to clean coal, into the Elk River. Recent information also has revealed that the ruptured tank contained PPH, a mix of polyglycol ethers, which federal investigators say is not a threat to public health.

The Freedom Industries chemical leak occurred just upstream from a water intake for West Virginia American Water Company (WVAW) on January 9. The chemical emitted a strong odor similar to licorice, and caused residents to suffer eye and skin irritation and nausea in Charleston and the surrounding counties, resulting in a water ban for more than 300,000 residents and businesses.

Little is known about the long-term health effects of MCHM. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that MCHM is a type of organic alcohol that is not combustible. It’s obvious odor makes its presence fairly easy to detect. In fact, residents noticing the smell were the first indication that the water had been contaminated.

Tennant said that the biggest problem has been a lack of accurate information, and encouraged the senators to push forward both the legislation and the study. She noted that the state was given contradictory information about how much MCHM was put into the water, and whether the water was safe to drink.

“The water ban has been lifted, but inconsistent information has left many West Virginians still wondering whether their water is safe,” she said in her testimony to the committee. “As recently as Friday, disturbing reports show detectable levels of MCHM still present in the water of at least five West Virginia schools. People are fed up. They are angry, and they are scared.”

Freedom Industry Facing Lawsuits

Many of those residents and businesses impacted by the West Virginia water contamination are now pursuing lawsuits against Freedom Industries, Inc. The company faces at least 30 complaints over the chemical spill, and is seeking protection in bankruptcy court to put those lawsuits on hold for the time being. In the meantime, lawsuits are also being filed against Eastman Chemical Company, which manufactures MCHM, and Dow Chemical Company, the makers of PPH.

In addition to civil claims, a federal grand jury is now investigating the incident, and the Freedom Industries could ultimately face criminal charges.

The company anticipates that clean up costs and liability will break it, and has asked for a loan of up to $5 million to start the clean up and remediation. Freedom Industries President Gary Southern, told a federal judge on January 21 that the chemical spill has caused chaos in the area bordering on “mass hysteria.”

WVAW, which also faces some lawsuits, has asked U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson to reject Freedom Industries plans until more is known about the financial state of the company.

Photo Courtesy of Steve A Johnson via Flickr CC 2.0


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