More Than 60 West Virginia Facilities Could Contaminate The Elk River’s Water Supply, Report Finds

CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

The Freedom Industries site in West Virginia, which released 10,000 gallons of chemicals into a drinking water supply, is seen in this Jan. 13, 2014, photo.

The leak from a Freedom Industries chemical storage facility in West Virginia may now be contained, but according to a new report, that plant was just one of many potential sources of pollution along the Elk River, which supplies water to 300,000 West Virginians.

The report, published by West Virginia’s Downstream Strategies, found that there are 62 facilities along the Elk River that are “potential significant contaminant sources” (PSCSs) — facilities that, if they experience a spill, would contaminate the Elk River’s water supply. That’s more than the 51 PSCs that were identified in 2002 by the Source Water Assessment Report written by the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health.

WV water

CREDIT: Downstream Strategies

The report warned that a spill similar to the one that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians last month could happen again if proper regulations aren’t put in place.

“The circumstances that led to contamination of the Elk River are examples of what could happen to many communities if they do not engage in proper planning and if regulatory agencies do not provide proper oversight,” the report’s authors write. “In some cases, tighter regulations are also warranted. Populations in Morgantown, Huntington, and cities and towns across the state are at risk if PSCSs are not accurately identified, and if risks from these sites are not managed.”

The report isn’t the only one to call for tougher regulations on the chemical and coal industries in West Virginia. A recent poll released by the Sierra Club found that most West Virginians polled think the January spill should serve as a “wake up call” for the state to re-evaluate its environmental laws. The poll surveyed 504 registered voters in the state and found that 73 percent of them thought that “West Virginia has paid too little attention to addressing threats to air and water,” and that 69 percent of them thought disasters like the Elk River spill were likely to occur in the future unless the state takes action to prevent them. The poll also found that 97 percent of respondents would support a proposal that would require facilities that could contaminate water supplies to be inspected regularly.

And though West Virginians are often painted as staunch coal supporters, 40 percent of respondents said the coal industry bears “a lot or some” of responsibility for the spill, and 65 percent said the coal industry bears a lot or some responsibility for the overall contamination of West Virginia’s air and water.

State and national lawmakers have called for more regulation in West Virginia too. Last month, the West Virginia Senate voted unanimously to approve a bill introduced by Sen. John Unger (D) which would strengthen regulations for above-ground chemical storage facilities in the state. The bill is now being considered by the West Virginia House of Representatives. Businesses in the state have also called for more environmental protection — last week, more than 60 businesses signed a letter in support of legislation that would better protect West Virginia’s waterways. The letter called for regulation that would “instill confidence in the tourists, businesses and talent that we want to come into the state.”