Living Earth - January 2014

“Everything will live where the river goes”

“Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes.”
Ezekiel 47: 9

Water is a precious gift of God, a gift that the prophet Ezekiel notes allows everything to live and thrive. But we do not always treat our water with the care and respect it deserves.

In early January 2014 thousands of gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM) spilled from a damaged holding tank into the Elk River near Charleston, W. Va. MCHM is used in processing coal and is potentially harmful to both humans and wildlife. The Elk River serves as the drinking water source for Charleston and much of the surrounding area. Officials from the region's water system and state and local governments immediately told more than 300,000 residents of the region to stop using tap water for drinking, cooking and bathing. The governor of West Virginia declared a state of emergency in nine counties, and asked President Obama to declare a federal state of emergency so that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could begin to work in affected communities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), at concentrations greater than one part per million MCHM can cause skin, eye and respiratory irritation, and people in the affected area reported skin rashes, nausea and other health impacts from contact with the contaminated water. Not only were thousands of individual West Virginians impacted by the lack of access to clean water in their homes, but also restaurants, hotels and other facilities were forced to close or scale back operations, affecting both workers and business owners.

By the end of January, levels of the chemical had dissipated and the CDC and state health officials deemed the water safe to use. Most areas had been told to flush their pipes and that they could resume using water, although the CDC was still advising pregnant women to avoid drinking tap water. However, because testing of most industrial chemicals is not required and little is known about the health impacts of MCHM, some question whether the CDC has enough information about the chemical to protect the public’s health.

In the aftermath of the water emergency many in the community were left without trust in the safety and security of their tap water. Many people are asking how the drinking water of a major metropolitan area could be so vulnerable to contamination, why so little is known about the health impacts of the chemicals involved, and how incidents such as this could be prevented.

Stronger laws for chemical storage, including better regulation of where toxic or potentially toxic substances can be stored in relation to drinking water sources could have prevented some of what happened in West Virginia. Industries often depend on rivers for transport, but storing dangerous chemicals in tanks near those water sources leaves open the very real possibility of contamination. Weak national chemical safety laws mean that often little is known about the environmental and health impacts of chemicals such as MCHM that are used in industrial processes, and this lack of knowledge makes responding to leaks and protecting the public's health much more challenging.

By late January, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced that his administration was working with the state's department of environmental protection to draft legislation to help prevent this type of crisis from happening again by empowering the agency to implement an above ground storage tank regulatory program. He also announced that the state had ordered the owner of the leaking storage tank, Freedom Industries, to remove all of the above ground storage tanks near the Elk River by the end of March 2014.

For the past several years Congress, particularly the United States Senate, has been working on legislation to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act to more effectively deal with the thousands of chemicals used in the United States.

Learn more about the West Virginia Water Crisis:

Learn more about efforts to reform chemical safety laws: