The Elk River Chemical Spill

Posted January 12th, 2014

”Light at end of the tunnel,” but no timeline for water

Elk River Cleanup in Progress

Introductory Note

by Gene Franks

The leading water news story for early January 2014 has been the chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia. The interesting part is how much is not known about the chemical in question.  Other than its name,  4-methylcyclohexane methanol,  a. k. a. Crude MCHM,  and that it is used in coal processing, information has been hard to find.

I did not expect to find it in the EPA’s contaminant list, since chemicals that the EPA studies and maintains standards for are only a tiny handful of the literally thousands of thousands of chemicals in use. For every chemical that the EPA monitors, there are thousands that we have never heard of. Nor is it surprising that information about treatment–how to remove it from water–seems to be non-existent.  It takes months to years to establish standards for water treatment.  

We know from a Wikipedia report that the water supplier believed at the outset that they could contain the chemical encroachment with their carbon filtration system and that their carbon filters were in fact removing the chemical, but they soon learned that their carbon filter (designed for day to day treatment, not chemical overloads) , “. . . could no longer handle the large amount of contamination in the water and the chemical began flowing through the carbon filter . . . .”  It was only after the carbon filter at the treatment plant were overwhelmed that plant operators decided to report the problem.

The lesson, of course, is that with this as with most chemical contaminants filter carbon is the first line of defense.

Lesson #2 is that this chemical was discovered rather quickly by the water supplier and by consumers because it has a powerful and distinctive odor.  Had it been a  tasteless, odorless liquid, it would not likely have been detected.  To think that the water supplier for Charleston was repeatedly running water quality tests looking for Crude MCHM would be more than naive.  As one writer described our water motitoring system, “Most of the time,  no one is looking for most of the chemicals.”  To verify, call your municipal water supplier and ask for their monitoring schedule for 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.

Lesson #3: Point of use or “final barrier” water treatment in the home makes sense. Having a high quality carbon filter or, better, a reverse osmosis drinking water system under your sink provides excellent protection against unexpected chemicals, whether you can smell them or not.


Four days after a coal-processing chemical leaked into the Elk River, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration and West Virginia American Water Company were once again unable to give a firm timeline for when water service would be restored to 300,000 residents in the Kanawha Valley.

A nine-county area of West Virginia is still under a “state of emergency,” with tap water not to be used for anything but flushing toilets and fighting fires, but test results “are trending in the right direction,” Tomblin said at a news conference Sunday night.

“I believe that we are at a point where we can say that we see light at the end of the tunnel,” Tomblin said.

Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American, said that he no longer believes they are “several days” from starting to lift the “do not use” order, but that the ban would not be lifted Sunday.

The leak affects the water system in parts of nine counties. All schools will be closed on

Monday in four of those counties: Kanawha, Boone, Lincoln, Putnam. Select schools will be closed in Cabell and Clay counties.

State Superintendent Jim Phares said that he would be sending instructions to county superintendents on how to flush their water systems and clean any equipment and appliances that were in contact with contaminated water. He said county personnel would begin that process on Monday.

All government offices and the legislature will be open Monday, Tomblin said.

State officials said that test results are improving, but the water system still needs significant flushing.

Gen. James Hoyer said that National Guard teams directing the sampling of water at the treatment plant met their goal of not seeing any results with chemical concentrations of more than 1 part per million of the leaked chemical, “Crude MCHM,” for 24 hours.

Laura Jordan, spokeswoman for the water company, said Sunday night that flushing of the utility’s distribution system had begun. But, residents still needed to wait until instructed to begin cleaning out their home piping and appliances.

State officials have said that a federal team from the Centers for Disease Control and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry came up with the 1-part-per-million figure as a safe level, in the absence of any drinking water standards or health-based standards for the chemical.

But there is little health data available for the material, and government officials have declined to provide much detail about how they calculated the 1-part-per-million number.

When asked for more details on Sunday, Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling said only that, “We felt very confident in the federal system.”

Information about Crude MCHM has been difficult to come by, and Freedom Industries — the company that was storing the chemical along the banks of the Elk River — hasn’t been helpful in divulging information either.

“I think that perhaps they could have been a bit more forthcoming and offered their assistance on what problems this particular chemical could have caused,” Tomblin said.

When asked why officials didn’t know such material was stored so close to the region’s water intake, Director of Homeland Security Jimmy Gianato said it was a matter of the material being stored there that kept Freedom Industries off their radar. The company filed its “Tier 2” forms with the state and county last February, making them aware of what it stored and how much was kept there.

“The chemical that is involved here is not listed as an extremely hazardous or toxic substance, so it’s not subject to a lot of the regulatory requirements that other products are,” Gianato said.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection didn’t regularly inspect those tanks, because the facility is used for storage, not processing, according to Secretary Randy Huffman.

“It’s not a process facility,” Huffman told reporters. “[Freedom Industries] simply brought the materials in and they stored them in the tanks, then they shipped them out. There are no processes, no water discharges. There are no air discharges, so there is not a water permit at this time.”

State officials continued to decline to give out much information about exactly how residents should flush out their home systems once the water company’s distribution system is deemed clear.

Bowling said those protocols would be provided “when the timing is right,” and Tomblin cautioned residents not to try to move things too quickly.

“Please don’t jump ahead,” the governor said. “That green light has not been given yet.”

McIntrye said he could not provide definitive information about whether any of the chemical would cling to the insides of home piping, water tanks or appliances.

“I wish I could speak to that with some

authority,” McIntrye said. “This is a highly soluble compound . . . The information I have is, ‘I don’t believe.’ It’s an opinion, and it’s the best I can offer.”

Once water is found acceptable for normal use, flushing can begin — zone by zone — to not strain the system.

“We need to get samples at different points within the zones to verify that the water we’re putting out at the treatment plant is completely through that zone, and then we will be able to lift that order for that zone,” McIntyre said.

The zones where flushing would begin first include downtown Charleston, the East End Kanawha City, South Charleston, the West Side and North Charleston. Those areas include four major hospitals.

An Internet based mapping system is being created for customers to search their home or business address to see what zone they are in and if they should begin flushing. It will be available at, but it is not yet live. A 24-hour hotline is also being established, officials announced.

Ten people have been hospitalized at area hospitals with symptoms consistent with chemical exposure, Bowling said.

An additional 169 people have been treated at hospitals and released. There have been 1,045 calls to the West Virginia Poison Center concerning human exposure and 65 calls concerning animal exposure. Bowling said that the number of people calling poison control has begun to decline.

The chemical leaked out of a one-inch opening in a 35,000 gallon tank. A retaining wall surrounding the tank, supposed to serve as a failsafe, was scheduled for $1 million in repairs.

The company didn’t report the chemical spill until nearly an hour after DEP officials were already on site, and nearly four hours after citizens began complaining about the licorice odor that the leak caused. Huffman said the company has been cooperative in remediation efforts along the river.

Tanks that held Crude MCHM at the facility are being cleaned and will soon be cut apart, DEP official Mike Dorsey said. Booms continue to be in the river in order to catch the chemical as it leaches from soil.

“There will be quite a bit of work off into the future after this emergency is over, and that will involve removing tanks, removing concrete and replacing materials that are on the site with better material,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey said he is confident the flow of Crude MCHM has been stopped from the tank, but he said it’s not known how much remains in the soil.

“I suspect it’s going to leach out of that riverbank for some time,” Dorsey said. “We will maintain booms and dikes that are boosted pads in there to keep the stuff up and keep it from going into the river.”

Article Source: West Virginia Gazette-Mail.

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