National Geographic News
Crews clean up a chemical spill along the Elk River in Charleston, W.Va., which compromised the public water supply of eight counties on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014.

Crews clean up a chemical spill along the Elk River in Charleston, WV.

(AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published January 10, 2014

Nearly 200,000 people in West Virginia have been told not to drink, cook, or shower with the water from their faucets, after a large-scale chemical spill on a river near the state's capital on Thursday.

"I can't tell you that the water is unsafe, but I also can't tell you that the water is safe," Jeff McIntyre, the president of the utility West Virginia American Water, said at a Friday morning press conference.

An unknown amount of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which is frequently used as a foaming agent to wash coal before it is sent to market, has been found in the Elk River in the central and southwestern parts of the state, near Charleston.

The river is the source of drinking water that West Virginia American Water serves to customers in nine counties.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the White House declared a state of emergency Thursday for those nine counties, and the state National Guard has been helping bring in "water buffaloes"--portable tanks with clean water.

According to news reports, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol was being stored in a 48,000-gallon tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical facility in Charleston about a mile upriver from the West Virginia American Water treatment plan.

McIntyre said he has had no contact with Freedom Industries.

In a statement, Freedom Industries said, "Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination." The company said it is working with state and federal agencies to try to determine how much of the chemical spilled and is "following all necessary steps to fix the issue."

The chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is a greasy substance commonly described as smelling like licorice (or sometimes coconut oil).

Health Risk?

When asked if local reports of people vomiting could be linked to the contaminated water, McIntyre said, "I'm not able to link anyone's illness to this event.

"There is a smell to the water, which can cause stress," he said, "but I can't link the two because I'm not qualified."

Thomas Aluise, a spokesman for the state's Department of Environmental Protection, said 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is not toxic but is harmful if swallowed.

Laura Jordan of West Virginia American Water told the media that the current do-not-drink advisory was issued as a precaution.

"The safety sheet indicated there could be some skin or eye irritation if you come in contact, or possibly harmful if swallowed, but that's at full strength of the chemical," she said. "The chemical was diluted in the river."

McIntyre said his utility's water treatment plant "is designed to handle such events," although he explained that no water plant is designed to specifically treat every possible chemical: "They are designed to treat things that are naturally in the water stream."

McIntyre added that the treatment plant has "a premium treatment process," a filter of activated carbon that sits ready in case of a potentially dangerous discharge. In this case, however, "the carbon got saturated with that material and therefore the treatment process couldn't handle the quantity."

In other words, there was so much 4-methylcyclohexane methanol in the water that much of it was flowing past the carbon filter and into the water supply.

The Cleanup

To deal with the problem, McIntyre said engineers are adding additional carbon and other chemicals to speed the treatment process, and to "move water out to the distribution system to flush it and to make sure customers have clean water." He said that to get a better handle on the situation, "we need to know what the quantities are and what the health risks are for these quantities."

Aluise told National Geographic, "We're fairly confident that no more than 5,000 gallons escaped from the tank. A portion of that was contained in secondary containment, and a portion entered the Elk River."

McIntyre said he's unable to provide timelines for how long flushing out the chemical will take. Even if it is present at levels that are considered safe, he said "there could be a taste and odor."

No surprise, then, that the media are reporting a run on bottled water at area stores. There have also been reports of people streaming into emergency rooms after already having consumed the water, concerned that they might be at risk.

Understanding 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol

A consultant at a major mining industry firm told National Geographic that 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is used at about 20 to 25 percent of coal processing plants in West Virginia.

The consultant, a former miner who insisted on anonymity because of orders from his employer, said the chemical is used in a process called froth flotation, which separates sand-size particles of coal from the surrounding rock, in a tank of water or another solution.

Not every coal preparation plant uses this chemical, because it is primarily used to produce coal for metallurgical purposes, called coking coal, the consultant said. The chemical is rarely used to produce coal that is burned to create electricity, called steam coal, which represents the vast majority of coal produced.

"Thirty years ago I used diesel fuel in froth flotation, but you can't use that anymore because of restrictions on air emissions," the consultant said.

The chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol replaced diesel.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

Willbe Outtolunch
Willbe Outtolunch

All I have to say is; Why is this chemical storage facility built right on the shore of a drinking water supply river, or near any body of water for that matter!  Really!, look at the images.  This place is built right on the shore of the river.  That's Ignorant.

Willbe Outtolunch
Willbe Outtolunch

All I have to say is... Why is this storage facility built right on the edge of a drinking water river!  Really?  Look at the images its right on the shire of the river.  That's ignorant.

Darin hull
Darin hull

Knowing nothing of the chemical, effects, ppm,etc., etc.. I do read in this artical that the company uses a carbon filter, (my guess is ACTIVATED carbon), and this brings me to the point of this posting. Would the affected people be able to use or manufacture a filter to help to cope with this disaster?? It would also become prudent to add that activated charcoal IS NOT the same as cooking charcoal, but may be purchased at a local PetsMart or other places that lend to keeping fish. Thoughts?

doug Seela
doug Seela

I would hate to be the company's SPCC Rep., I believe the dikes are supposed to be constructed to hold the entire contents of the tank and then some for rain or ice. The spill should have been contained within the dike, where it could have been quickly  cleaned up with a vac truck.

Ellen Mayer
Ellen Mayer

 This compound is on the EPA's list of toxic chemicals., a resource for formulas and manufacturers (many of which are in China)  lists some of the safety and risk hazards. In 2006, little was known about the chemical but it was legally sold in the  US.

As a native West Virginian (living in the Eastern Panhandle, near DC/Baltimore) I am dismayed that Corporations continue to be given a free hand (through weak regulation, minimal inspection,small fines, etc.) to ignore the environmental impact of their practices and the resulting detrimental effects to the quality of life of the residents surrounding their operations. I am even more disheartened that many of our citizens continue to accept the lack of regard for the environment, as well as the heath and safety of this beautiful and resource rich state's citizens, displayed by many corporations as the price they must pay to have a job. This problem has a long history , rooted in the exploitive history of coal; an unrelenting campaign of education and exposure of detrimental  corporate practices is needed to effect a shift in attitude.  If given adequate information, I believe West Virginian's can be empowered to participate in the steps needed to safe guard the environment  and protect the places they call home for  present and future generations .

Peter Zsiga
Peter Zsiga

What are the communities and other waterways which will be affected as the chemical flows downstream? Are precautions being take to notify them, and to contain the spill as close to the source as possible?

Mim Logue
Mim Logue

@stopfemanow wow why have these  chemicals upstream from 300,000 peoples  drinking supply

Priscilla Donohew
Priscilla Donohew

I live in Charleston, WV. In fact, I live right around the road from this plant. The smell from this chemical is that of  black licorice. The strange part of all this is, we have been smelling this in the air off and on for a few years now.Alot has happened since this all started with the spill. The plant is now ordered to shut down and they are now emptying all 11 tanks. For more information on this, please go to this news site. They are making this their number one priority.

Priscilla Donohew
Priscilla Donohew

I live in Charleston,WV. In fact, we live right around the road from this plant. The smell is that of black licorice. The thing about all this is,we have been smelling this in the air off and on for a few years now. The plant has been issued to come to a dead halt and they are having to drain all 11 tanks onthe propertyAlot has went on since tis happened.. For all information on this, you can go to this reliable news site which has made this their main priority  I hope this is all over soon, it has been a nightmare.

charlie linebarger
charlie linebarger

Nothing about the effect on all the other species that use the river? The mammals and birds that drink it  The muskellunge, walleye and smallmouth bass that live in its' lower reaches, any of North America's treasurehouse of endangered mussels. (There are more species of freshwater mussel in North America than anywhere else on Earth) . People will be discomfited. But the slow erosion of the natural world around us will eventually do worse than discomfit us.

Priscilla Donohew
Priscilla Donohew

@Brian Howard @charlie linebarger Brian, it has been reported both ways. The company itself  would not even reply to anything until yesterday and it was for a mere 7 minute news conference. They have even avoided the water company in this matter.


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »