Never let a serious crisis go to waste? West Virginia decides to plug the hole in regulation of aboveground storage tanks

Vol. 45 No. 6

Joseph Jenkins is an environmental, oil and gas, and natural resources attorney at Lewis Glasser Casey & Rollins, PLLC in Charleston, West Virginia. He was “officially” without potable water for five days as a result of the January 9, 2014, chemical leak.

On January 9, 2014, in Charleston, West Virginia, a chemical leak impacted the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians in the state’s capital and an adjacent nine-county area. Freedom Industries Inc. (Freedom) stored a mixture of coal-cleaning chemicals, crude MCHM (consisting mostly of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol), and PPH Stripped (collectively MCHM), along the Elk River in an aging aboveground storage tank (AST). Approximately 10,000 gallons of the organic compound MCHM escaped from the tank and secondary containment and entered the Elk River above the water intake for the local water utility, West Virginia American Water.

West Virginia’s governor and President Obama declared a state of emergency in nine counties, and the state issued a do-not-use order for the utility’s water. For several days people were told not to use the water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing, or bathing. The only allowable uses were for sanitation and fire suppression. It took nine days before state officials lifted the do-not-use order for all customers except pregnant women. The advisory for pregnant women remained in place for two months, until the state could no longer detect MCHM in the drinking water. Although the spill was significant in the number of affected people, it was fortunately insignificant in its immediate human health impact. No lives were lost, but the long-term impact of MCHM on the population is unknown.

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