By Maya Nye
On the early morning of January 9, a citizen complaining of a strong “black licorice” smell alerted officials to a chemical leak at the Freedom Industries site that seeped into West Virginia’s Elk River a mile and a half upstream of the state’s largest water intake. It wasn’t until hours later that a ban was placed on water use for over 300,000 people across nine West Virginia counties. Schools shut down. Hospitals cancelled non-essential surgeries. Restaurants were forced to close leaving many people out of work. The local economy nearly ground to a halt.
The chemical that leaked from the Freedom Industries site, crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is used in the processing of coal-fired energy production. It is one of 62,000 chemicals that were grandfathered in under the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), many of which can pose serious consequences for human health.
This is not a new issue in West Virginia: chemical contamination has been a concern in this area for a long time. This 25-mile stretch of West Virginia’s Kanawha River has been nicknamed “chemical valley” for its chemical manufacturing industry. In fact, many incidents in this valley over the years have served as the focal point for reform to national chemical safety and security policy, including a 1985 aldicarb oxime leak that led to national Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Laws and the implementation of the United States Chemical Safety Board. In the wake of this latest spill, the communities around the Elk River in West Virginia also have an opportunity to spur action on chemical safety.
In response to the incident, the West Virginia State Legislature unanimously passed a bill requiring greater regulation of aboveground storage tanks in zones surrounding drinking water intakes, as well as requiring updated source water protection plans. This is a good start towards improving the safety and security of drinking water supplies.
However, this incident could provide the basis for further action at the national level. That’s why in February, I travelled with my colleague Stephanie Tyree with the West Virginia Community Development Hub to Denver to join our Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform partners at the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) Conference to seek national support for our home state of West Virginia. As a result of our testimonies, the NEJAC responded to our request and agreed to advocate on our behalf for a listening session of the President’s Executive Order 13650 to be held in Charleston, West Virginia.
The public has a right to know what dangers exist in their communities in order to make informed decisions about their individual health and the health of their families. It is now mid-April, more than 90 days since the spill, and the crisis is still not over. The odor is still faintly detected in some homes. Schools have recently gone back to serving tap water to the dismay of many parents, and most people are not bathing in or drinking the water for fear of unknown health risks. We hope that the West Virginia incident will better inform chemical safety and security laws across the country and ensure that they protect families and workers in all communities.
Maya Nye is the President of People Concerned About Chemical Safety (PCACS), a 501c4 non-profit community organization active in community affairs for over 30 years dedicated to promoting international human rights pertaining to chemical safety through education and advocacy.