West Virginia chemical spill: Does it threaten clean water gains?

Rivers and streams are becoming cleaner thanks to industry advances and government regulation. But this week's chemical spill in West Virginia shows that threats to the environment and public water supplies remain.

By , Staff writer

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    People wait in line for water from a 7500 gallon tanker truck at Riverside High School near Charleston, W.Va., Friday. A chemical spill left the water for 300,000 people in and around West Virginia's capital city stained blue-green and smelling like licorice.
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Coming after the deadly explosion at a chemical storage facility in Texas last year and three years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the leak of an estimated 5,000 gallons of a toxic coal-processing chemical into West Virginia’s Elk River has quickly become a reminder of how deeply involved Americans are with heavy industry in their midst.

Industry officials and regulators say tank standards and spill response procedures have only improved in the last 20 years, and recent chemical events are much rarer than the litany of major spills especially in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet the West Virginia spill, which put as many as 300,000 West Virginians in harm’s way, has already dovetailed into broader concerns among many Americans. Environmental groups alleged Friday that the spill is part of an increasingly dangerous chemical threat as so-called “fracking” – using chemicals to mine hard rock for oil and natural gas -- spreads through the heartland.

Recommended: Fracking. Tight oil. Do you know your energy vocabulary?

After several people along the river noted a sweet, licorice-like smell on Thursday, the Kanawha County Fire Department and the state Department of Environmental Protection tracked the odor to a containment tank leak at a facility run by Freedom Industries, a chemical supplier to Big Coal.

Investigators found that the released chemical had traveled through the ground and into the Elk River, leaching into the water just a mile above the West Virginia American Water Company plant that supplies large parts of the region with clean water.

After local and state officials determined the tap water was contaminated, a stop-use warning went out to customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane counties.

The Associated Press reports that conditions in Charleston are tense, as near-panicked residents search for fresh water, and everything from schools to florists closed.

Reports also indicate the level of the chemical in the drinking water is receding by the hour. Nevertheless, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said Friday he’s not sure how long the emergency will last.

Nearly 700 people had called into the state’s poison control center by Friday evening, reporting a wide range of symptoms including rashes and nausea. But emergency room sources also said many people who said they had symptoms like itches and rashes had actually had no exposure to the chemical, which is not believed to be highly toxic.

One only has to read the EPA’s incident reports to get a feeling for the daily chemical threat in the US.

In the last four months alone, the US has reported two dozen major incident spills, including “mystery sheen” in Quarantine Bay, La., “Gambell Oiled Birds” in Gambell, Alaska; a “polymer-based drilling fluid spill” in Tacoma, Wash., “Florida Power and Light Chlorine release” in Cocoa Beach; and “Sunk Tug Chickamauga,” in Eagle Harbor, Wash.

Such a litany of routine spills, added to the major ones like the one in the Elk River, adds to growing concerns about drinking water quality amid an energy boom in the United States, where pressurized chemicals are used to crack deep rock in order to unlock pockets of natural gas and oil. That’s helping the nation’s energy independence, with the US now a net exporter of gasoline, but many are concerned it’s adding to health and environmental risks.

With that history in mind, environmental activists say the spill crisis in West Virginia is a sign that heavy industry in the state needs more oversight.

“This is an example of the true costs of minimizing or ignoring the importance of protective policies,” Angie Roser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition told the British newspaper the Guardian.

Indeed, heavy industry dependent West Virginia continues to struggle for 100 percent spill compliance, as have other similar industrial corridors like those in Louisiana or along the Texas Gulf Coast. Fracking-related spill complaints, meanwhile, have been filed in four US states, with West Virginia reporting 122 possible spills in the last four years. Four of those complaints led to “corrective action” imposed by regulators.

Yet despite that bad news, there’s evidence that industry and regulatory efforts over the last 20 years to keep chemicals out of America’s waterways are at least in some ways working.

Last year, the EPA released a national stream survey with this bottom line: While 55 percent of American waters are polluted – whether from spills or agricultural run-off – the percent of stream length with good fish habitat – a great indicator of water quality – rose from 51 percent in 2004 to 69 percent today. Another important gauge: The percent of stream length with few human disturbances increased from 23 to 35 percent in the last 10 years.

None of that, however, matters much to West Virginians, who have already begun to file lawsuits over their polluted drinking water. The EPA is keeping a close eye on the cleanup, and U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said that he and other federal authorities are looking into what happened, telling CNN Friday that "even a negligent release of this kind could be a criminal violation."

"It's really too early to tell whether criminal charges could be brought" against Freedom Industries, he said Friday. "... We're going to want to figure out just exactly what occurred and when ... But right now, obviously, what we're trying to do is get people's water back on."

Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, came under heavy fire from reporters on Friday, suggesting finally that this “incident is extremely unfortunate and unanticipated. … This has been a very, very taxing process."

Charlestonians agree.

Noting that people can’t even use tap water to wash their hands after using the restroom, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said on CNN that the spill has become “a prison from which we would like to be released.”

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