Monday, January 13, 2014

Don't Drink the Water In Charleston, West Virginia

Charleston is the capital of West Virginia and its largest city, although its population barely exceeds 50,000.  It's a safe bet that nearly all 50,000 residents were in various states of annoyance ranging from ticked to furious as they learned last Friday, January 10, that the water supply for not only their city, but nine surrounding counties as well, was unsuitable for anything except flushing toilets.  How come?  A little-known industrial chemical used for washing coal had leaked into the Elk River just above the main intake pipe for the city's water supply.  Exactly how this happened, and whether it's a cause for serious concern or only a transient inconvenience, are questions that we don't have answers to yet.  But the incident has already revealed problems ranging from inadequate protection from leaking storage tanks to inadequate knowledge about obscure chemicals.

Large tanks of stuff have been rupturing and spreading death and destruction ever since engineers learned how to build large tanks.  Perhaps the most famous disaster involving an industrial storage tank rupture was the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919.  A two-million-gallon tank filled with molasses for the manufacture of alcohol used in munitions gave way, and sent a 25-foot-high wave of goo at speeds up to 35 miles an hour racing through downtown Boston, killing 21 and injuring 150.  It was such incidents that inspired the practice of surrounding large tanks with containment dikes, which can be seen at most tank farms around the country.  The idea of a containment dike is that if the tank lets go, the contents will at least be slowed down by the dike, if not contained altogether.  I am not familiar enough with the regulations governing tank construction to know whether containment dikes have to be sealed with impervious layers of rubber or tar, a precaution often taken in landfill construction.  But it is obvious that the containment dike at Freedom Industries failed to stop about 5,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) from getting into the Elk River and thus into the West Virginia American Water Company's pipes.  Once that happened, the whole water system had to be flushed, which could take days.  In the meantime, you will have trouble finding bottled water in Charleston, because it vanished from the shelves as soon as the water company announced the problem. 

The chemical, which reportedly smells like licorice (its strong smell was how the leak was originally found), is not known to be hazardous, but on the other hand, no extensive toxicity tests have apparently been made on it either.  Determining toxicity to humans in a way that would satisfy the U. S. Food and Drug Administration is a costly business, and so for chemicals that will probably not end up in food or otherwise in close contact with humans, chemical companies don't bother to investigate it unless there are obvious hazards.  Every chemical sold has to have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), but the information on these sheets comes from various places and is not up to the FDA standard.  Because washing coal is clearly not a consumer-type application, nobody has done a study on whether the licorice-smelling compound in question can harm humans.  Probably the best data we can get will come from future demographic studies in the area served by the Charleston water supply utility.  In the meantime, it is worth considering whether the old Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 should be updated.  Right now, all a chemical company has to do to legally sell a new chemical is to notify the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency of the chemical's composition.  The EPA resorts to computer modeling to guess whether the new compound is hazardous, and either lets it go or regulates it, depending on the result.  No actual safety tests are required.  Certainly there is food for legislative thought here, but Congress seems to have other things on its collective mind recently.

The West Virginia American Water Company did the right thing in promptly notifying its customers not to use the contaminated water.  Similar precautions are called for on a smaller scale quite frequently when supply-line breaks result in contamination with ground water.  In those cases, residents can safely use water for drinking purposes after boiling it, but boiling wouldn't get rid of MCHM, so bottled water is the only alternative for a few days. 

Another lesson to be learned is how a system with no backup water source can be especially vulnerable.  Apparently the water utility had only one set of intake pipes, and no wells or other sources.  At the least, this situation would call for heightened scrutiny of any chemical plants a few miles upriver from the intake pipes, with perhaps added safety precautions above and beyond the usual ones required for plants that could leak into the river just above the intake site.

Monday-morning quarterbacking is easy, and I'm not having to go out and hunt down the last gallon of bottled water on the shelves until the water coming out of my kitchen faucet no longer smells like licorice.  (I predict a steep decline in licorice sales in West Virginia, by the way.)  But given the unfortunate circumstances, the authorities in West Virginia's capital appear to have handled the situation reasonably well, and hopefully there won't be any consequences worse than the inconvenience of using bottled water for a while. 

Sources:  I referred to an article by Deborah Blum at
and a New York Times article by Trip Gabriel on the accident at  I also used Wikipedia articles on Charleston, West Virginia, and the Boston Molasses Disaster.

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