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Chemical Spill Taints Drinking Water

Accident: Hundreds of thousands of residents in West Virginia are told not to drink or use water

by Marc S. Reisch
January 10, 2014

About 300,000 people are without drinking water in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley today after a chemical used to clean coal spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, W. Va.

On Jan. 9, the contents of a 48,000-gal tank at specialty chemical maker Freedom Industries’ plant leaked and breached a containment system spilling into the Elk River. The river is the water source for central and southwestern West Virginia. The discharge occurred about a mile upriver from a drinking water treatment plant.

According to a statement from Freedom Industries, a 28-year-old business with less than 200 employees, the firm hasn’t yet determined the size of the spill. Freedom Industries identified the chemical that fouled the Elk River as 4-methyl-1-cyclohexanemethanol, or crude MCHM, a compound used to wash coal and remove impurities.

American Water, the utility that serves the Kanawha Valley, is warning customers to only use bottled water for drinking, bathing, preparing food, and other purposes. Firefighting and toilet flushing are the only acceptable uses for tap water until the emergency ends, the utility cautions. The National Guard is helping distribute fresh water in the affected area.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued a State of Emergency in the affected area at 9:32 PM on Jan. 9. The White House also declared a federal emergency in the area.

R. Booth Goodwin II, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, says his office has opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the spill. “We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence we uncover.”



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Chris Thomas (January 11, 2014 8:53 PM)
Can someone comment on the exposure guidelines for MCHM? I've read reports that the drinking maximum they're using here is 1ppm, and that sensors (at the time of reporting) showed 3ppm. In the same story, it was mentioned that car washes, for example, were banned from using water from these sources, as it would make employees sick.

Would 3ppm in water affect my paint job? What would the surfactants in the soap do to concentrate or aggregate the contaminants? How much inhalation dose would a worker get from airbone mists at this concentration?
Allen Hunter (January 14, 2014 2:31 PM)
I am having some trouble tracking down exactly what chemical entity (or mixed fraction) was spilled. Several different names have appeared in the press. For the stated application, washing coal, one would expect a very inexpensive commodity chemical for which there would be a lot of available data. However, the various names suggested all are non-specific or suggest entities that seem too expensive (e.g., 4-methyl-1-cyclohexanemethanol)for an application such as this. Does anyone know of a reliable report of the actual chemical entity (or was it a mixed fraction) that was released?

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