A publication of Appalachian Voices


A publication of Appalachian Voices

Across Appalachia

Doubts Follow Elk River Contamination

By Kimber Ray

Four months after a Freedom Industries chemical tank contaminated the water of approximately 300,000 West Virginia residents this past January, only 36 percent of those residents were drinking their tap water, according a survey released in May by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

The affected private utility, West Virginia American Water Company, is under investigation by the West Virginia Public Service Commission regarding its response to the spill. A hearing is scheduled for October.

The chemical spill revealed that West Virginia American Water has no backup water intake supply for its principle distribution center. State environmental officials have proposed that the Kanawha River — of which the Elk River is a tributary — be designated as a potential drinking water source. Approval of the proposal during the 2015 legislative session would create tougher pollution controls on the Kanawha. In the long term, this would make it possible for West Virginia American Water to establish a second intake at the location.

Water quality and other environmental regulations have long been contentious issues in West Virginia. According to a 2012 study in Environmental Science and Technology, approximately 25 percent of the state’s surface water is contaminated by mountaintop removal coal mining. The chemical that contaminated the Elk River in January, MCHM, is used in coal processing. Following the spill, a state review uncovered three coal companies’ facilities discharging trace amounts of MCHM into nearby waterways. Two of those companies have since discontinued their use of the chemical.

This April, both Ohio and North Carolina began accepting wastewater contaminated with MCHM by the Elk River spill. Between the two states, more than 225,000 gallons of contaminated stormwater runoff will be treated, and an additional 50,000 gallons of wastewater from Freedom Industries’ storage tanks and the Elk River has been injected into hazardous waste wells in Ohio.