West Virginians demand more accountability after chemical spill leaves 300,000 without water

chemical spill
CC BY 2.0 Members of the West Virginia National Guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package test water samples. Photo courtesy West Virginia National Guard Public Affairs.

Last week, 300,000 residents of West Virginia went without water because of a chemical spill in Elk River that contaminated the drinking supply. Thursday evening, residents were told not to drink tap water after it was found to be tainted with 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), a chemical used for processing coal.

The spill occurred at a chemical storage site operated by Freedom Industries, and was discovered during the investigation of odor complaints. In West Virginia, chemical storage facilities are not subjected to inspection or certification. The state's Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection told Metro News that needs to change:

“For this type of facility, the administrative processes, the records, the certifications, those types of processes are much more important for minimizing the risk of leaks and so forth because, with tanks, you can’t always see a leak,” [Randy Huffman] said. “Having a process in place, where we can get those certifications and deal with this from an administrative standpoint, gives us much better regulatory tools than just walking around the site.”

Of course, further regulation will meet resistance. House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday that he believes there are enough regulations in place, Raw Story reports:

"I am entirely confident that there are ample regulations already on the books to protect the health and safety of the American people,” Boehner added. “Somebody ought to be held accountable here.”
“What we try to do is look at those regulations that we think are cumbersome, are over-the-top and are costing our economy jobs. That’s what our focus continues to be.”

Some residents worry that this isn't the first time their water has been contaminated. Climate Progress reports that the spill may have started weeks earlier, and many residents report having smelled the distinctive licorice odor of MCHM in the past. State air quality inspector Mike Kolb told The Charleston Gazette, "It was apparent that this was not an event that had just happened."

Freedom Industries is under investigation by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection for not reporting the spill promptly. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has committed to a criminal investigation.

Although West Virginia's governor Earl Ray Tomblin has tried to distance the incident from the coal industry, the sentiment is widespread that the coal industry has not been held accountable for environmental damages. A petition started on MoveOn.org is calling for federal regulators to step in and overrule the state's mining enforcement program. In an op-ed, Jeff Biggers writes:

"The question is, will the nation continue to turn a blind eye to the mounting toll of the aging extraction industry on the health and livelihoods of central Appalachians or take action against the growing, untenable costs of mining, cleaning, transporting and burning dirty coal? It must. It is high time for the national media and federal officials to finally turn the investigative and regulatory spotlight on coal country’s disastrous water-protection policies."

West Virginians demand more accountability after chemical spill leaves 300,000 without water
A debate over industry regulations flairs after toxic chemical spill.