More than 300,000 West Virginia residents are still without tap water after a chemical spill from the Freedom Industries facility in Charleston dumped 7,500 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexyl methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River. The chemical, which leaked from a one-inch hole in a 40,000-gallon stainless steel storage tank, quickly found its way into the water supply via a water treatment plant downstream from the spill, which was unable to filter out the large volume of MCHM from the municipal water supply. Officials are holding out on declaring the water safe to drink until they get consistent samples of less than 1 part per million of MCHM.
The ease with which this leak paralyzed the water supply of 9 counties in West Virginia underscores the importance of regular tank maintenance, and the necessity of an emergency response plan in the event of a leak. The state Department of Environment Protection had not inspected the Freedom Industries site in more than 20 years, even though the company informed state officials one year ago that it was storing MCHM, which is used to wash coal, “about a mile and a half up the Elk River from where West Virginia American Water draws supplies for thousands in the Charleston area.” But according to the Charleston Gazette, “public officials, though, have said they know little about the chemical involved. They’re all acting a bit surprised that this mystery substance was being stockpiled so close to a crucial water intake, and shocked that something like this could have happened.”