On Jan. 9, some residents in West Virginia near the Elk River began complaining of a strange licorice-like odor. Just 1.5 miles downstream from a water-treatment center on Elk River, a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, had started leaking through a 1-inch hole in a steel storage tank. Although the investigation is in the early stages, it appears the responders to the neighbors’ call discovered the spill and alerted the unknowing operator. There are now battles over testing and efforts to determine what exactly has leaked and the possible risks to the water sources.
The chemical MCHM is utilized in coal-processing plants to help remove fine particles of coal from surrounding rock in a process commonly referred to as froth flotation. The Etowah River Terminal, where the chemical was being stored, is a liquid bulk storage distribution facility that serves the Port of Charleston, W.Va. There, Freedom Industries, which within one week of the spill filed for bankruptcy protection, operates 13 bulk tanks with a liquid storage capacity of 4 million gallons.
It is estimated that there are more than 84,000 industrial chemicals that are used in the United States and our regulators know very little about most of them. The last major congressional act passed on this subject was the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976. It is widely criticized as being ineffective. A total of 62,000 industrial chemicals, including MCHM, have been grandfathered by the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976. This means that MCHM has never been tested by federal regulators. In fact, none of those 62,000 industrial chemicals that were grandfathered have to be tested. Also, current regulations as a result of the act require little testing for new industrial compounds. This lack of regulation is now at the heart of the post-spill debate. What was leaked? What are its risks? What should the public know about its water quality?
In essence, a chemical that we know very little about just started leaking into a major source of water supply. Now, nine West Virginia counties are telling their citizens: “Don’t drink the water.” Industry reports about the chemical itself are mixed. At the very least, this has led to some confusion about how to clean up and treat folks who have been exposed to the MCHM in varying degrees of toxicity. The reality is that the public safeguards should be in place for transparency before and after such occurrences.
Perhaps Congress will lower some of its own toxicity to actually revisit a law designed to protect all of us from toxic chemicals across America. One can hope, right?