It’s been one month since a leak was discovered at a chemical storage facility operated by Freedom Industries on January 9, spilling an estimated 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM — a chemical mixture used in the coal production process — into the Elk River and the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians.
Despite assurances from federal and state officials that the water is safe, residents and experts remain concerned as the black licorice smell characteristic of crude MCHM is still being detected in homes and schools.
“The scariest part is that we really just don’t know what’s going to happen,” 21-year-old Charleston resident Kellie Raines told ThinkProgress. “All of us are using the water now and we’re okay now but in 30 years — I’m young, I don’t want to in 30 years realize that I have cancer because of this water.”
Here is a look at the major events that have shaped this ongoing crisis:
The Leak Is Detected
January 9: Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declares a state of emergency after Freedom Industries reported to state officials that one of its chemical storage tanks had been leaking. The company could not say when the leak started or how much had spilled into the Elk River. More than 300,000 people were ordered not to drink or use the water for anything other than flushing the toilet. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said symptoms of exposure include “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.”
The scariest part is that we really just don’t know what’s going to happen.
January 10: A press conference held by West Virginia American Water revealed more disconcerting questions than answers, namely that the company and state officials were completely unfamiliar with the spilled chemicals and that no standard process existed for testing the toxicity of the chemicals in water. Without sufficient information, the company was unable to say just how dangerous the diluted chemical is to drink or breathe.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is called in to deliver clean water as residents descended on local stores, creating a scene of “chaos” according to one clerk. Wal-Mart went as far as calling in local police to guard a water delivery.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announces his office has “opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release.”
Spill Is Worse Than Estimated
January 12: The spill appears to be much larger than initially estimated, with state environmental officials saying they believe up to 7,500 gallons of crude MCHM leaked into the Elk River.
While Gov. Tomblin called the leak “unacceptable” and opened the door for potential changes in state oversight law, the governor continues to emphasize that the spill was not a coal industry incident. “This was not a coal company, this was a chemical supplier, where the leak occurred,” Tomblin said at a press conference. “As far as I know there was no coal company within miles.”
The Charleston Gazette reports that three years ago, a team of experts with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board “urged the state of West Virginia to help the Kanawha Valley create a new program to prevent hazardous chemical accidents.” The proposal was ignored by state officials.
January 13: West Virginia American Water begins lifting the ‘do not use’ ban by zone, giving residents the green light to begin flushing their systems.
January 14: At a Capitol Hill press conference, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner tells reporters that the federal government shouldn’t do more to protect citizens against future disasters. “We have enough regulations on the books. What the administration ought to be doing is doing their jobs. Why was this plant not inspected since 1991?” What Speaker Boehner failed to mention is that MCHM is one of 64,000 chemicals in use in the U.S. that were grandfathered in to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), meaning there are no requirements that anyone prove whether or not they are safe.
We’re not saying it’s safe. West Virginia American Water is saying it’s safe. We are taking their word for it.
In the days after the spill, Charleston area residents tell ThinkProgress that they noticed the licorice-like smell characteristic of crude MCHM weeks before Freedom Industries reported the spill to authorities.
January 15: Freedom Industries is cited yet again by the DEP, this time receiving five violations after moving the chemical to a second site that also failed to meet safety standards.
After Ban Is Lifted, More Health Concerns Arise
Residents continue to arrive at local hospitals with symptoms consistent with crude MCHM exposure, as the safety of the water and long-term health impacts remain a mystery. “We’re not saying it’s safe,” Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, told the Charleston Daily Mail. “West Virginia American Water is saying it’s safe. We are taking their word for it.”
More than two days after the state began lifting the water use ban, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources issues a one-page advisory for pregnant women, based on guidance from the CDC, recommending “out of an abundance of caution” that “pregnant women drink bottled water until there are no longer detectable levels of MCHM in the water distribution system.” Previously, the CDC had said levels of the chemical below 1 part per million was considered safe, but refused repeated requests from the Charleston Gazette regarding the basis for that recommendation.
Freedom Industries Files For Bankruptcy
January 17: Despite the fact that crude MCHM is comprised of six chemicals, the Charleston Gazette reports that a key corporate study used by the CDC to set the 1 ppm safety threshold only tested the main ingredient, 4-MCHM. Thus, nine days after the spill began, residents are still left questioning the safety of their water. “If crude MCHM is truly what leaked, it’s possible that we don’t even know which of this ‘cocktail’ is most harmful,” environmental consultant Evan Hansen told ThinkProgress. “We could have set a threshold based on the wrong one. We may be testing the wrong one.”
On the same day, Freedom Industries files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, raising major questions over how the company will be held fully responsible for the damage caused by the spill and contamination of the water supply.
January 18: Everyone affected by the spill is given the ‘all clear’ to use and drink their tap water as the ban is lifted for the final two percent of customers.
Hospitals report an uptick in chemical-related admissions. According to the Charleston Gazette, health officials said 20 people had been admitted to the hospitals, 411 had been treated and released from the emergency room, and 2,302 had called the poison control center as of January 18, a significant increase from just a few days prior.
Governor Can’t Say Whether Water Is Safe
January 20: While lingering questions about the safety of the water remain, Gov. Tomblin says it’s up to residents to decide whether or not they use the water. “It’s your decision,” Gov. Tomblin told reporters at a press conference. “I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe,” he continued. “But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use it.”
Tomblin continues to emphasize the 1 ppm safety threshold, as does West Virginia American Water Company president Jeff McIntyre, who went as far as to drink tap water in front of reporters to underscore his point.
If crude MCHM is truly what leaked, it’s possible that we don’t even know which of this ‘cocktail’ is most harmful. We could have set a threshold based on the wrong one. We may be testing the wrong one.
January 21: Twelve days after reporting the initial spill, Freedom Industries discloses to state and federal regulators that an additional chemical, PPH, spilled into the water but declared that the exact identity of the substance is “proprietary,” the Charleston Gazette reported. The CDC “noted that data about the potential health effects of the chemical ‘PPH’ are — like the information on Crude MCHM — ‘very limited.’”
January 22: In the same day that members of the Senate Natural Resources Committee took up legislation to regulate above-ground chemical storage, they also moved forward with a measure that would weaken water protection. “The legislation is a coal industry-backed move to rewrite the way West Virginia calculates its limits for aluminum,” according to the Charleston Gazette.
Freedom Industries claims all leaked substances have now been disclosed.
Freedom Industries Admits To Another Chemical
January 24: The Associated Press reports that Freedom Industries knew about the additional chemical that had leaked into the water on the first day of the spill and didn’t report it to authorities, according to Steve Dorsey with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Dorsey told the AP that Freedom informed its employees of the second chemical via email on the first day of the spill, but failed to tell authorities for 12 days.
Two dozen West Virginia scientists write to the EPA and the CDC, calling on the two agencies to allow their scientists to speak to the press and the public without interference.
Rafael Moure-Eraso, Chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, told state legislators that their investigation into the spill could take up to a year. “These chemicals are created in the industry to be reactive and to do chemical work. Even in small quantities, they affect human beings, they have the potential to affect human beings and we should be worried about it,” Moure-Eraso said. “Definitely, they should not be in drinking water period, at any level.”
Amount Of Chemicals Spilled Raised Again
January 25: The Department of Environmental Protection orders the Freedom Industries site to be dismantled and all materials disposed of no later than March 15.
Even in small quantities, they affect human beings, they have the potential to affect human beings and we should be worried about it
January 27: Freedom Industries now says about 10,000 gallons of a blend of crude MCHM and PPH leaked from their chemical plant into the Elk River, an increase from a previous estimate of 7,500 gallons and initial government estimates of no more than 5,000 gallons.
January 29: Scott Simonton, a Marshall University environmental scientist and member of the state Environmental Quality Board, told a state legislative panel that he had found formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, in local water samples. “It’s frightening, it really is frightening,” Simonton said. “What we know scares us, and we know there’s a lot more we don’t know.”
Governor Asks For More Bottled Water
January 30: As residents remain wary of drinking the tap water, Gov. Tomblin asks West Virginia American Water for an additional 13 tractor-truckloads of bottled water, bringing the company’s contribution to 33 truckloads of water.
January 31: Contractors hit an underground pipe at the Freedom Industries tank farm, “releasing more Crude MCHM and, with it, more of the strong, black-licorice odor into the surrounding air,” the Charleston Gazette reported. Local officials said the chemical mixture was held within a “cutoff trench” and did not make it into the Elk River.
February 1: According to documents and interviews obtained under the state’s public records law, the Charleston Gazette reports that the DEP never reviewed two key pollution-prevention plans for the Freedom Industries site. “DEP officials say that, because the Freedom tank farm’s previous owners had received a DEP water pollution permit decades ago, the site was exempt from a 2004 requirement to provide the plans to the DEP.”
February 4: CNN reports that a federal grand jury has begun its criminal investigation into the spill, issuing the first round of subpoenas.
Chemical Smell Closes Schools
February 5: Two schools were dismissed after reports of the black licorice smell characteristic of crude MCHM. One teacher reportedly fainted, and “several students and employees complained of lightheadedness and burning eyes and noses.”
At a high-profile press conference featuring representatives from multiple state and federal agencies, Gov. Tomblin said that while he can’t tell people its 100 percent safe, he is using the water and has been drinking it “for the last couple weeks,” despite continuing to order bottled water to the state.
Dr. Tanja Popovic, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, defended the agency’s 1 ppm calculation, saying of the water, “You can bathe in it, you can drink it. You can use it however you’d like.”
Popovic later clarified to the Charleston Gazette that “we’re not really talking about whether water is safe, we’re talking about is the water appropriate for use given the information we know about MCHM.”
Pennsylvania press reports that 3,500 gallons of crude MCHM will be shipped from Freedom Industries site to their state, though officials there likely won’t be told how or where the chemical will be stored.
February 6: Health officials receive complaints from 14 Kanawha County schools after the licorice-like smell characteristic of crude MCHM continues to be detected after the buildings were classified as ‘non-detect’ and allowed to reopen.
Marc Glass, principal with the environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies, said in an interview with ThinkProgress that the fact that people continue to detect some component of the crude MCHM mixture by its smell shows “our analytical capabilities have limitations.” Therefore, ‘non-detect’ doesn’t mean the water is chemical-free.
February 8: Residents protest West Virginia American Water for continuing to bill them for water while safety remains an unanswered question.
This piece has been updated to reflect an estimated 10,000 gallons spilled, according to Freedom Industries’ latest estimate.