National Geographic News
A stretch of the Elk River in Charleston, W.Va.

A stretch of the Elk River on January 10, 2014, after a chemical spill that affected nine counties.


Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published January 13, 2014

Although the tap-water ban was lifted in the wake of West Virginia's Elk River chemical leak, the long-term ecological impacts of the spill remain uncertain.

On Monday, the 300,000 residents of nine counties in West Virginia were told that they could resume drinking and using their tap water, five days after an estimated 5,000 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCMH) leaked into the Elk River near Charleston.

As National Geographic previously reported, MCMH is used as a foaming agent to wash certain types of coal before it is sent to market. The chemical leaked from a 48,000-gallon storage tank owned by Freedom Industries, located about a mile upriver from a drinking water treatment plant operated by West Virginia American Water, affecting the central and southwestern parts of the state.

Working with state officials, the utility lifted the ban on drinking water gradually in the region on Monday, so the system would not be overwhelmed by demand. Customers were asked to flush out their water pipes before using any of the water. The utility said the water could still have a faint odor or taste for some time, but that it was considered safe.

However, Sonya Lunder, a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., told National Geographic that the decision to lift the water ban was based on scant science. "Evidently the one-part-per-million safety level, used to lift the drinking water restriction, is based on an unpublished study of the amount of chemical that killed 50 percent of test animals, a very crude indicator of health concern," she said.

South Charleston Public Works employees assist local residents in South Charleston, W.V. in obtaining bottled water at the GeStamp Stamping Plant-South Charleston (W.Va.) distribution location.
Public works employees in South Charleston, West Virginia, assist local residents in obtaining bottled water on January 12, 2014.

Spill's Ecological Effects?

Lunder added that there are unanswered questions about the spill's possible ecological impacts, from a chemical that "most people had never heard of."

Lunder said she reviewed the official material safety data sheets for MCMH. "They say things like the chemical could be irritating to skin and eyes and that you should try to keep it from getting into waterways, but these are typical emergency measures and they're not always based on data," she said.

Lunder also reviewed the scientific literature, and she said that there doesn't seem to be any publicly available studies on what the impacts of the chemical would be to either human beings or wildlife, or how long the chemical will persist in the environment. "There's little data with which to draw any conclusions on what effects might be," she said.

Brian Lutz, a biogeochemist who studies the environmental impacts of the coal industry at Kent State University in Ohio, said,

The lack of toxicological data on MCMH is staggering.

He added: "While I'm unaware of any spill of this chemical in the past, there have been multiple high-profile cases in the past in which slurry impoundments—structures holding the residue from coal washing and preparation—have failed. Because of this, it seems reasonable to expect that we should have detailed information available for all chemicals used to prepare coal."

Lunder said it appears that companies did report some production information on the chemical to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011, but that "it was kept confidential." Calls for comment to the EPA and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection have not been returned.

Lunder added that 4-methylcyclohexane methanol does not appear to be very volatile, so it is unlikely to evaporate quickly. "But how long it will take to break down is unclear," she said.

Lutz added that it's possible the chemical was quickly diluted once it reached the larger Kanawha River from the smaller Elk River, although he noted that it is hard to know, given the lack of toxicological data.

Lunder pointed out that the chemical was already on the market in 1976, when Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act. "Screening of new chemicals would have looked at those questions, but the government did not look at what was already on the market because there was political pressure and because there were so many chemicals already out there," she said.

Asked if the spill likely does pose a threat to downstream communities or to living things, Lunder said it is unclear, although she said the chemical isn't that acutely toxic. "If it had been 5,000 gallons of dioxin, a persistent and highly toxic chemical, it would have been terrible," she said.

What the Chemical Is Used For

An industrial chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is used at about 20 to 25 percent of coal processing plants in West Virginia. It 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.

It is used primarily to produce coal for metallurgical purposes, so-called coking coal. It is rarely applied to coal that is burned to create electricity, so-called steam coal, which represents the vast majority of coal produced.

Lutz added that although some people may view the spill as an isolated incident, "the people of Charleston and surrounding areas are now unfortunately experiencing the same concerns that have plagued many people throughout rural West Virginia. Coal mining, especially mountaintop removal, has had severe and widespread impacts on water resources throughout the region."

Lutz said the spill may serve as an "opportunity to revisit and improve laws and regulations protecting water resources—both in Charleston, as well as throughout the rest of the state."

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

Tom Mengel
Tom Mengel

(FYI - This is what I've put on my FaceBook page . . . )

It would seem that if the large businesses concerns like gas fracking and coal would just be a little more honest and transparent about their methods and fess up to some accidents that are bound to happen, then their PR departments would not have to work over time to do late damage control when something like W VA gets hit with a chemical spill. Case in point, there are no real standards as to what level of contamination is considered dangerous in this case even though thesechemicals are in common use. No one has even done a peer review baseline study, just one "privet" industry study. Why? As stated in the National Geographic news piece below:

"Sonya Lunder, a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., told National Geographic that the decision to lift the water ban was based on scant science. "Evidently the one-part-per-million safety level, used to lift the drinking water restriction, is based on an unpublished study of the amount of chemical that killed 50 percent of test animals, a very crude indicator of health concern," she said.". Read that again: "that killed 50 percent of test animals". Not statistical long term projections for cancer spikes, not carefully done brain damage studies in developing fetuses, not growth repercussions in growing children or possible health concerns for older adults. Death of half of the total population of test animals was the criteria for the one in a million contaminate level. So, would YOU go and drink that water just because the coal companies said it's now "safe"?

This is almost the same situation where people have become sick here in Denver from exosphere to fracking fluids after drilling site accidents and the local drilling companies refused to even tell the attending ER doctors what was in the drilling fluids so they could try to nullify the effects. In one case a roustabout died and an attending ER nurse became so ill she was out for months after the incident, and we still don't know what the Hell was in that stuff. No company secret formulas are worth human lives, yet that seems to be the exact stand of the Petroleum Institute. 

As long as the oil/gas/coal industries that are owned and controlled by the likes of the Koch brothers and continue to do business by unlimited hubris and Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt ("FUD") most thinking Americans will consider them adversaries, not allies. And no matter what the amount of of money nor the size of their PR and PAC organizations that they throw it at will change these facts. Please THINK and vote to help get rid us of these 19th century robber baron wannabe's. 

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

"The utility said the water could still have a faint odor or taste for some time, but that it was considered safe".

I'm not affected by this spill but that statement would greatly concern me. If the water still has an 'odor' and a 'taste' then surely the supply is still significantly affected. From the utility's viewpoint there's probably not much more they can do - but that doesn't help those being told it's safe to drink the water. I hope the utility managers drink the water too.

Janet Bowling
Janet Bowling

I live in an affected county, Boone county which is adjacent to Kanawha county which the Capital of Wv is located. I have not been given the clear signal to begin the flush of my water pipes and to resume use. Could this misinformation be the son that water bring trucked in to aid the affected residentss is diminishing already?

Timothy Fisher
Timothy Fisher

A lot of people in my area are jumping the gun and flushing their water pipes/starting to use their water again before they are given the official OK. I'm also VERY anxious to get a shower & do dishes, but I'm going to wait until they say it is safe. Even after that, I'm going to use up a good bit of my bottled water for drinking and cooking before I even think about using the stuff from the tap. Better safe than sorry!

Charlene Anteman
Charlene Anteman

this is all very interesting, however, there is misinformation in your article.  I live in one of the affected areas and we have NOT been given the all clear sign to flush.  There are over 300,000 persons affected by this who have not been able to use this water to drink, cook, wash clothes, shower...the only thing it can be used for is flushing toilets.  As of 1/14/2014 at 6:39pm, only an estimated 39,000 people have been cleared.  The rest of us are in limbo.

Al Justice
Al Justice

Scary.  I wish so many false reports that the water band has been lifted would stop being proliferated.  This is not true.  Only central Charleston area has started flushing--and they, are having problems.  The huge broader region are 'still' under the do not use ban.  

With that said, thank you very much for your attention to this matter.  It is important.

sean pueschel
sean pueschel

Why we allow gas powered boats to ply our drinking water sources(Lake Norman, NC for one) is beyond me.  Hopefully, this spill will rekindle efforts to inspect and correct hazards to water supplies.  Much of the world fights water wars  and here we are pissing in our own glass.

Karen Sherry Brackett
Karen Sherry Brackett

Better Reporting by Brian Clark Howard than I have seen on many media sources today.  "Evidently the one-part-per-million safety level, used to lift the drinking water restriction, is based on an unpublished study of the amount of chemical that killed 50 percent of test animals, a very crude indicator of health concern," she said."  quoted from National Geographic Article... statement by Sonya Lunder, an environmental toxicologist with the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C.

  Someone seems to have given out a false impression or media release that the water ban is lifted for all of the West Virginia residents involved which is simply not true.  Only 5,000 residents have been cleared to date.   For the National Geographic to also make this mistake most likely means that the false information has been broadly dispatched by someone in government for West Virginia.  The mistake needs to be publically corrected, the source of the mistake found out and the motive for the mistake investigated. 

Dave R.
Dave R.

@Tom MengelTom, nicely distilled concise synopsis; every base covered with economic yet highly stirring choice of diction. Your "comment"(I feel)yields an attention-grabbing quality the "employees" concentrated in DC just may comprehend on a level which was previously thought an impossibility.

Tom Mengel
Tom Mengel

@Andrew Booth I would be interested in what the legal complications for the involved companies are going to be in the next few years.  The almost total lack if scientific evidence to back up their safety claims is very, very dubious to say the least (and they already have a population that has been ravaged by other well known environmental issues).  I can just hear the trial layers sharpening their long blades in anticipation of the upcoming windfalls.  But as independent subsidiaries they will just be cut lose by their primary owners when they get gutted by legal obligations.  And the parent companies and their owners will whistle all the way to the to big to fail banks as usual.  

Brian Howard
Brian Howard expert

@Karen Sherry Brackett Hi thanks. I was told that people are getting their water restored on a rolling basis, so as not to overwhelm the system. The exact timeframe of who gets their water back when wasn't made clear, although the officials said it should be safe to drink now. I'm looking into it further.


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 »