W. VA Residents Sick After Drinking “Safe” Water Following Chem Spill
More than 100 residents of the Charleston, West Virginia area have required emergency room treatments this week after drinking water that they were told was safe in the wake of a chemical spill last week.
The West Virginia American Water Company (WVAW) told tens of thousands of area residents on Monday that their drinking water was safe following a Freedom Industries chemical spill last Thursday, which contaminated the water supply of more than 300,000 people.
However, more than 100 residents who believed the all-clear signal and then used their water reported that they were experiencing various health problems, such as eye irritation, rashes, nausea, and continuing to detect a licorice smell linked to the chemical permeating their homes when they showered, bathed and flushed their toilets. Sick residents flooded local emergency rooms between Tuesday and Wednesday morning in the nine counties affected by the water contamination.
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The illnesses raise concerns that the company, already facing multiple water contamination lawsuits, lifted the drinking water ban too early and may have exposed customers to a chemical whose long-term health effects are unknown. The company claims to have waited until contaminant levels dropped to 1 part per million, which state officials say is a safe level. However, some local doctors said it was normal for some people to be particularly sensitive even at supposedly safe levels.
West Virginia American Water Company issued a press release (PDF) on Wednesday announcing that the water ban is being lifted by zones, so as not to overtax the water supply. The drinking water provider warned customers to flush their home plumbing systems before using the water. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released a guide on flushing home plumbing systems (PDF).
The water contamination incident was caused by thousands of gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane, or MCHM, which leaked from a ruptured Freedom Industries storage tank into the Elk River last week. The chemical is used to clean coal, but can cause eye and skin irritation as well as nausea, and its long-term exposure effects have never been thoroughly studied.
Freedom Industries Cited for Violations at New Storage Site
On Monday, the same day the drinking water ban was lifted for at least 50,000 affected residents, DEP investigators issued five citations against Freedom Industries for deficiencies at the site where it relocated its operations following the spill.
On January 10, the company was ordered by DEP to evacuate its Etowa Terminal, where the spill occurred, and move to a new facility. However, investigators say both the original site where the accident happened, and the new Nitro facility where the company relocated the chemicals, lack secondary containment measures that would keep chemicals from reaching the water supply if another tank ruptured. The new facility is not near a river or water supply, but the company may still have to relocate yet again, investigators say.
The company was also cited for failing to properly store drums filled with chemicals that could contaminate the water supply, not heeding stormwater and groundwater guidelines, and failing to file monitoring reports.
Both Freedom Industries and the West Virginia American Water Company face a growing number of toxic tort lawsuits from residents and local businesses who say the spill and subsequent water supply contamination occurred due to negligence.
Photo Courtesy of Steve A Johnson via Flickr CC 2.0
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