The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Latest News

January 10, 2014

UPDATED — 5 hospitalized, lawsuits filed in wake of chemical spill

Governor makes clear incident is a chemical one, not coal-related

About five people have been admitted to Charleston-area hospitals to be treated for symptoms that could have been caused by Thursday’s chemical leak into the Elk River, just upstream from the water intake that services about 100,000 customers — an estimated 300,000 people — of West Virginia American Water.

A similar number of law suits have been filed in Kanawha County Court.

Department of Health and Humane Resources Secretary Karen Bowling said she’d had no reports of people in serious or critical conditions.

Three of those class action suits filed Friday were against Freedom Industries, which owns the storage facilities where a 40,000 gallon tank of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or Crude MCHM, leaked an estimated 5,000 gallons of the chemical into the soil on the banks of the Elk, eventually leaching through the soil and into the river.

Crude MCHM is a frothing agent used to clean coal. The moderately soluble chemical continued to flow in the river, which was at about 7 feet on Thursday.

The suits were filed on behalf of restaurant owners and other similar businesses, and individuals; the suits ask for the recovery of lost profits and other damages caused by the spill and government-ordered closure of businesses.

Friday afternoon, West Virginia National Guard Adjutant Maj. Gen. James Hoyer said the chemical had dissipated from 2 parts per million Thursday to 1.7 parts per million. Hoyer said 1 part per million is an acceptable level of Crude MCHM in water, according to the Centers for Disease Control. At .1 part per million, the odor associated with the chemical is no longer detectable, he said.

Hoyer said the water has been tested every hour and teams worked throughout the night to perform tests on inflow and outflow samples. Each test took 46 minutes, he said.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU said a 3,000 gallon spill would translate to 41 milligrams per liter in the Elk River and 6 milligrams per liter in the Kanawha River using data available now.

“Those are pretty low concentrations,” he said. “You would have to drink thousands of gallons of that water to get anywhere near a lethal dose.”

Still, he said, showering would not be a good idea, because the chemical could irritate the eyes, skin and lungs.

Although the spilled chemical is associated with the coal industry, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made clear Friday afternoon the accident was not a coal industry issue.

“This is not a coal company incident; this is a chemical company incident,” Tomblin said.

West Virginia American Water president Jeff McIntyre said Friday that he could not say if the water his company provides its customers is unsafe. But he couldn’t assure them that it is safe, either.

As for when water customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties can return to normal water usage, McIntyre could offer no timeline, nor would Hoyer.

“I’d be speculating,” Hoyer said.

McIntyre said his company doesn’t test for Crude MCHM because “it isn’t supposed to be in the water.”

West Virginia American did detect the chemical, however, and by 4 p.m. the carbon filtration system could no longer handle the amount of contamination in the water, McIntyre said.

McIntyre said he did not yet know a quantity that may have leached into the water, but a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson said he was “confident no more than 5,000 gallons escaped.”

“A certain amount of that got into the river,” said the DEP’s Tom Aluise. “Some of that was contained.”

No production or actual coal cleaning goes on at the Freedom Industries facility on the Elk River, where he said the company operates a tank farm for storage. The leaky tank is close to the river, Aluise said.

Aluise said he didn’t know if the chemical is corrosive, nor did he have any information on what caused the leak.

According to a fact sheet from Fisher Scientific, the chemical is harmful if swallowed — and could be so if inhaled — and causes eye and skin irritation.

The spill caused a state of emergency in Kanawha and eight other counties where West Virginia American Water customers reside. Restaurants in Charleston were closed immediately, and grocery store shelves were stripped of bottled water early in the evening. Schools in the region were closed Friday.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced Friday that his office is investigating the incident.

“Yesterday’s release of a potentially dangerous chemical into our water supply has put hundreds of thousands of West Virginians at risk, severely disrupted our region’s economy and upended people’s daily lives,” Goodwin said.

“My office and other federal law enforcement authorities have opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release. We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence we uncover.”

Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, was part way through his plate of wings at a local sports bar where he and fellow legislators had gathered to watch a game about 6:30 p.m. Hall said he got a text message about the ban on water use, then started following local news media on Twitter. The restaurant stopped all new orders, he said.

While Hall didn’t notice anything unusual about the water or the reported smell of licorice in the air, he said he knew others who had.

“Friends who work in the area could smell it all day,” Hall said.

The West Virginia Legislature is in the first week of its annual session.

The “No Use” order, which means that water can only be used to flush toilets and fight fires, was issued as a precaution, officials said, because they are still not sure what, if any, risk the spill poses to residents.

McIntyre said his company won’t know that until they know the health standards for the diluted chemical.

 West Virginia American Water has had no contact with Freedom Industries, McIntyre said. The chemical company did not report the spill to the water company, he continued. McIntyre said he did not know if the neighboring company reported the leak to anyone. The DEP contacted West Virginia American Water, McIntyre said.

 Water at the plant first must be determined to be safe, then the entire system will be flushed. McIntyre said water will likely be turned on in zones rather than the entire system at one time.

 Aluise said the DEP is working with personnel at Freedom Industries to approve remediation of the affected area.

 The DEP’s Chief of Emergency Response, Mike Dorsey, said Freedom Industries was pumping from the tanks at the time of the leak and “quite a bit” of the Crude MCHM was caught in sedentary detainment.

 “This is not a catastrophic failure,” Dorsey said.

 Freedom issued the following statement Friday afternoon:

“Since the discovery of the leak, safety for residents in Kanawha and surrounding counties has been Freedom Industries’ first priority. We have been working with local and federal regulatory, safety and environmental entities, including the DEP, Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and Homeland Security, and are following all necessary steps to fix the issue. Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination.”

 Tomblin announced a drive for donations of needed items, including water, sanitizer, wipes, liquid baby formula, paper plates, plastic utensils and microwavable meals, will be held today on Kanawha Boulevard in front of the Capitol from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. today.

He advised those in other areas who want to donate to contact their Emergency Management Services offices.

The governor emphasized that water and supplies are available and there is not a persistent shortage of bottled water.

 Potable water is on its way from other areas in West Virginia, and from other states, as well, the governor noted.

 “Don’t panic,” Tomblin said. “Help is on the way.

— E-mail: ppritt@register-herald.com

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