Hundreds of thousands of West Virginia residents remain without water days after a chemical spill may have contaminated drinking water in at least nine counties, and a number of lawsuits are already being filed against different companies that may be responsible for this environmental disaster.
Last week, water in and around Charleston was declared unusable after a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries leaked 5,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane, or MCHM, into the Elk River. The chemical leak occurred just upstream from a water intake for West Virginia American Water Company (WVAW), the regional drinking water supplier.
As a result of the water contamination in West Virginia, a number of area residents have been treated for nausea that may have been caused by exposure to the chemical, which smells like licorice.
At least six chemical spill lawsuits against Freedom Industries have already been filed, and some complaints also name West Virginia American Water Company as a defendant as well, indicating that they failed to promptly discover the problems and notify area residents.
Plaintiffs include both local residents and local restaurants, with all of the lawsuits filed to date in the Kanawha County Circuit Court.
The Freedom Industries chemical leak into the water supply was first detected last Thursday, when residents reported a foul odor from their water. A containment area failed and the chemical appears to have migrated across land to the river.
According to the West Virginia poison control center, nearly 800 reports of exposure to MCHM have been reported since the spill. People have reported nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, skin irritation and rashes. The center has called in additional staff and has its employees working overtime to answer callers, and 90 people have gone to local hospitals due to symptoms, with at least five residents requiring hospitalization due to the health effects of the chemical spill.
On Friday, President Barack Obama classified the situation as an emergency and said the federal government would provide disaster relief. As of Monday, officials said contaminant levels were still too high in the local drinking water to allow residents to use it, leading to a fourth day where more than 300,000 people have no drinking or bathing water, affecting both residents and businesses.
West Virginia American Water Company issued a press release (PDF) on Saturday, indicating that the levels must drop below 1 part per million before the ban on using the water can be lifted. A number of federal and state agencies are cooperatively monitoring the water and will announce when it is safe to use again.
MCHM is used in the process of cleaning and preparing coal for use. Little is known about the long-term effects, but short-term exposure can cause nausea, skin, eye, and throat irritation. It can also cause pneumonia.
Federal investigators and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are investigating the cause of the leak.