What's the Chemical Behind West Virginia's River Spill?

Spill in the Elk River brings a "do not drink" advisory.

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


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+.