Officials Reveal Second Chemical Spilled in W. Virginia Waters

Media groups slam ‘lack of openness,’ say official response ‘aggravated an alarming situation’

Lauren McCauley | Common Dreams

West Virginia officials revealed Tuesday that a second potentially harmful chemical had also spilled into the Elk River contaminating the water supply of over 300,000 area residents.

According to the Charleston Gazette, it wasn’t until 12 days after the Jan. 9 spill that Gary Southern, the President of Freedom Industries—the source of the leak—told the state Department of Environmental Protection emergency response director Mike Dorsey that the 7,500 gallons of Crude MCHM also contained a chemical known as “PPH,” which contains potentially toxic glycol ethers.

The Gazette reports:

A Freedom Industries data sheet on the chemical says it can irritate the eyes and skin and is harmful if swallowed. The sheet lists the material as less lethal than Crude MCHM but also says no data are available on its long-term health effects.

State officials said late Tuesday that they believe the West Virginia American Water utility company would “likely have removed the chemical from drinking water during its normal treatment process,” and are performing additional testing of water samples from the first days after the incident to confirm that.

“We have to go back and confirm things and make sure we’re doing our due diligence for public health,” said Gen. James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard.

The news comes less than a week after WVAW announced the water was safe to drink.

Ahead of the revelation, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) sent an open letter to the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention denouncing the “lack of openness” on the part of government officials regarding the spill and ongoing clean up effort.

The groups write:

The recent drinking-water contamination incident represents a major crisis for 300,000 people living in the Charleston, W.Va. area, but it’s also a wake-up call to people across the United States who rely on their public servants to ensure their health and safety. The lack of openness during this crisis by government officials and agencies has aggravated an alarming situation and left many people doubting the competence and credibility of the people in whom their welfare is entrusted.[…]

From the beginning of the West Virginia emergency, government agencies seemed to be evading the news media, and by extension the public.[…]

In crises like these, it’s imperative for government and those entrusted with the public’s welfare to inform people promptly and continually about what they know — and what they don’t.

The lack of transparency regarding the spill coupled with the unregulated containment of toxic chemicals along the region’s water supply have raised many questions regarding the state’s notoriously lax regulation regime.

On Monday, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced new proposed legislation that would regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks— in response to which Huffington Post reporter Jason Linkins quipped: “Wait, you mean that West Virginia regulators weren’t doing this stuff already?”

Reuters reports:

Tomblin said the legislation would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to implement an above-ground tank regulation program that would require operators to report tanks’ location, construction and maintenance.

It also requires annual inspections and certifications and allows the head of the environmental agency to order a plant to take corrective action when storing potentially harmful material. Plants also would have to submit spill prevention plans for each tank.