WV 2014 chemical spill: Groups host call to discuss bringing safe drinking water back to state

A group of water experts, citizen coalition leaders and a concerned parent recently held a phone-based news conference to reflect on the Freedom Industries chemical spill in West Virginia last year and discuss the progress, challenges and next steps of bringing safe drinking water back to the state.

TULSA, OK, Jan. 12, 2015 -- On Friday, Jan. 9, the state of West Virginia marked the one-year anniversary of the Elk River Chemical Spill, a major crude oil disaster that occurred along the Elk River in the city of Charleston that shut down the majority of the city and affected about 300,000 people (see "West Virginia chemical spill shuts down capital city, water supplies").

The discharge originated at Freedom Industries, a provider of specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement sectors, where a 48,000-gallon tank at the site leaked 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), a chemical used to clean mining equipment. Authorities believe that as much as 10,000 gallons of the chemical was released into the environment.

Since the occurrence last January, much has been done to bring restoration to the affected region, take preventative measures going forward and ultimately hold local regulators and politicians accountable for the accident and its impact on the economy and the environment. Further, many people affected by spill have come together to support and raise awareness of these efforts.

For example, a group of water experts and citizen coalition leaders as well as a concerned parent held a phone-based news conference on Wednesday, Jan. 7, to reflect on the Freedom Industries crisis and discuss the progress, challenges and next steps of bringing a safe drinking water supply back to West Virginia. Sponsored by the West Virginia Safe Water Roundtable Coalition, the hour-long public forum featured five speakers and included a live Q&A session.

The presenters comprised Janet Keating, executive director of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC); Angie Rosser, executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition; Cathy Kunkel, steering committee member of Advocates for a Safe Water System; Dr. Ben Stout, aquatic biologist specializing in water quality and professor at Wheeling Jesuit University; and Rebecca Roth, a Charleston-area mother who was pregnant during the disaster.

The conference highlighted certain policy reforms as a result of the crisis, including Bill 373, passed last year by the West Virginia Legislature, which calls to impose the first-ever regulation of aboveground storage tanks in the state, as well as require public water utilities to develop a source water protection plan that identifies threats to water supplies and proposes solutions to minimize them.

"What was revealed this week to the public was that of those [tank] inspections that have been submitted, 1,100 of those did not pass inspection -- they're deemed not fit for service," said Rosser. "So that shows us that this law was needed, it was important and there are still tanks out there that may be leaking today. The result was, in our opinion, the most significant water protection bill that West Virginia has seen passed in a generation."

Another important topic discussed was the status of the proposed bipartisan Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act, introduced last year by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), which would improve oversight of chemical utilities and help strengthen the ability of West Virginia and other states to prevent chemical-related spills like the Freedom Industries tragedy.

"In talking with [Manchin's] office … they are intent on reintroducing a version of that bill in this Congress, so it will be interesting to watch if that happens and if it gets any traction," said Rosser. "His office and he says that he is committed to that, but … we need to have some accountability there, because he made a very strong statement after the spill that West Virginia would have the cleanest, safest water in the nation, and we just need to see the action behind that."

Other areas of discussion explored how those responsible for the spill are being held accountable and where court proceedings stand; what funding is being provided for changes taking place as a result of the incident; how public perception is being monitored about the situation and in what ways it is impacting these changes; how the accident has influenced water quality and aboveground tank regulations in other states; and the extent to which drinking water quality inspections will occur in the wake of the spill; among others.

"While this water crisis was extremely frightening, it served to galvanize a broad range of citizen groups who pressured state lawmakers to pass a first-ever above-ground storage tank bill," said Keating. "Also with public pressure, the state's Public Service Commission agreed to investigate the water company's emergency response to the incident." However, "citizen groups, many who currently participate in the West Virginia Safe Water Roundtable, including OVEC, still have concerns about the long-term safety of our water supply."

Kunkel added, "If there's one thing we've learned from the water crisis, it is that public pressure can help protect our water. Weare focused on our water utility, West Virginia American Water, because they are the ones ultimately responsible for providing us with safe water. We need a proactive, transparent water system that engages citizens in making our water system safe."

"There's probably been a lot of exposure of [MCHM] to a lot of people," said Stout. "It's used in coal preparation, it's taken into coal-prep plants and used to separate coal from coal slurry, and that coal slurry is then impounded … and then it flows into our state waterways, from which we get our drinking water. So I'm sure there's continual exposure … in relatively large concentrations … not just to human communities, but to our natural communities and our beloved rivers."

Roth added, "A year ago at this time, my daughter was not yet two, and I was pregnant with my son -- I went from feeling happy anticipation for what the new year held to being filled with uncertainty and fear for our family’s health. It will be years before our family knows, for example, if the reproductive health of either of our kids has suffered at all because of the chemical spill. Water is the most important resource we have, and it is essential to our children's health. We've put down roots in our community, but they need water."

All information was found at OVEC's website and can be accessed at the following locations:

See also:

"One year later: WV American Water reflects on Freedom Industries chemical spill"

"WV American Water addresses distribution toxin levels, odor issues from chemical spill"

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