Last Thursday, about 7,500 gallons of a chemical, crude MCHM, used in the coal-cleaning process, leaked from a storage container owned by Freedom Industries at its Kanawha County facility on the Elk River. This leak touched off a crisis that completely cut off water for drinking, bathing and washing dishes for nearly 300,000 people and businesses in nine counties served by West Virginia American Water Co. The only allowable use for water during this time has been for fighting fires and flushing commodes.
However, the leak has been more than just a nuisance. While no one has suffered a serious illness from the leak, several people checked into Charleston area hospitals’ emergency rooms complaining of vomiting. It also has been an economic nightmare for businesses forced to close because they could not use water. The losses will total into the millions in lost revenue.
Investigators believe the leak began at approximately 8:15 a.m. Neighbors began calling authorities about a strange smell coming from their faucets. The West Virginia Division of Environment Protection found a nearly one-inch hole in a line at the Freedom Industries plant at 11:15 a.m. To compound matters, the retaining wall, meant to be the last line of defense against spills getting into the river, was deficient. The company knew that a million dollar repair was needed, but had not undertaken the project.
Freedom Industries did not report the leak until noon. All chemical emergencies are to be reported within 15 minutes of being discovered, but according to the way the law is written, the company may not have been required to do so in this case because of the chemical may not have been considered a hazardous material.
The nearly three-hour delay allowed the tainted water to enter into the American Water treatment facility, less than three miles downstream from Freedom’s plant. Had operators been made aware of the leak sooner, they may have been able to shut down the treatment facility before the chemical got into the production system.
Possibly the only good thing from this leak is it happened during the first week of the West Virginia Legislative session. Lawmakers will now find themselves under pressure to write a stronger law to protect citizens from this type of disaster.
The Mid-Ohio Valley has many chemical companies on both sides of the Ohio River and people here are rightfully concerned about what is taking place in Kanawha County. Since Parkersburg, Marietta and Belpre utilize wells for drinking water, it is unlikely a chemical leak would have similar results here. But it would not be impossible.
We live in a world where the chemicals created and stored in these facilities are used in products that have become necessary for our everyday lives. In addition, the plants offer high-paying jobs that support families and the economy of this area. Only environmental zealots would suggest that the companies be forced to close their doors.
But even fair-minded people who recognize the companies’ economic value expect them to operate safely, and to obey the law and report leaks – even if the law doesn’t require it be reported.
People should not have to go a week without water for drinking, bathing or washing clothes. It is more than an inconvenience, it is a health hazard. And businesses should not be forced to close on busy weekends because their water is unsafe to use.
The Legislature should learn from this nightmare and to write a law that protects the public and closes any loopholes that may allow this situation to happen again.