National Geographic News
Photo of cooling towers in the Chemical Valley in West Virginia.

Steam billows from cooling towers at a power plant near the Kanawha River in West Virginia.


Laura Parker

for National Geographic

Published January 16, 2014

Even before last week's chemical spill fouled tap water in nine counties in West Virginia, where more than 200,000 people still cannot use their water after seven long days, it was not unusual to find black water running from kitchen faucets in homes outside Charleston.

Or to see children with chronic skin rashes. Or bathtub enamel eaten away, leaving locals to wonder what the same water was doing to their teeth.

"Welcome to our world," says Vivian Stockman, 52, a longtime resident of rural Roane County, north of Charleston, the state capital, and an activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Indeed, people who live in the Kanawha River Valley, which much of the world learned recently is also known as Chemical Valley, have endured a long history of pollution of many kinds.

The coal-cleansing chemical that spilled from Freedom Industries' storage tank into the Elk River last Thursday is only the latest insult in what for some has been a lifetime of industrial accidents that have poisoned groundwater, spewed toxic gas emissions, and caused fires, explosions, and other disasters that neither state nor federal regulators have been able to protect against.

For nearly a century, Chemical Valley was home to the largest concentration of chemical plants in the United States, according to a 2004 history by Nathan Cantrell, published by the West Virginia Historical Society.

And though some of West Virginia's chemical manufacturers have shifted to Calgary's gas fields and to the oil-rich Gulf Coast in recent years, the discovery of the Marcellus Shale—which extends throughout much of the eastern United States and is touted as the largest natural gas field in the world—has raised hopes of a rebirth of Chemical Valley.

Photo of mountain top removal mining site near Kayford Mountain, West Virginia.
An aerial view of Catenary Coal Co. mountaintop removal site near Kayford Mountain in West Virginia.

"We are seeing a renaissance now because of Marcellus Shale," said Kevin DiGregorio, executive director of the Chemical Alliance Zone, a nonprofit economic development group dedicated to building the chemical industry in West Virginia.

"To those of us in the chemical industry, safety is number one," he said. "We drink the water, too."

The Elk River spill is the region's third accident in the last five years. It left 300,000 people surrounding Charleston unable to even touch tap water and essentially shut down the state's capital city as residents scavenged for bottled water, baby wipes, and frozen TV dinners requiring no water for cooking or cleanup.

And though about 70,000 customers have been told their water is safe again as of Wednesday night, the spill has renewed the long-running debate over environmental oversight of the coal and chemical industries, the foundation for West Virginia's fragile economy.

A Century of Chemicals

Chemical Valley begins at the hamlet of Gauley Bridge, population 614, in central West Virginia, where the New River and the Gauley River converge and flow into the much larger Kanawha. That river wends through the mountains and empties into the Ohio River on the Ohio-West Virginia border at Point Pleasant.

A map of West Virginia's Chemical Valley, an area of a high concentration of industrial facilities along the Kanawha River.

The chemical industry followed early salt miners and then the kings of coal to West Virginia in the late 1700s. But the real buildup came with World War I and the demand for explosives and other chemical products.

The town of Nitro, 14 miles downriver from Charleston, is named for gunpowder manufactured there in 1917 and 1918. A plan to make mustard gas in the town for battlefields in Europe never materialized.

But Agent Orange, which was used extensively—and controversially—in Southeast Asia to defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War, was produced at Nitro's Monsanto Co. plant from the 1940s until 1971.

Nitro has been back in the news more recently. Two years ago, Monsanto agreed to pay $93 million for medical monitoring of some 5,000 Nitro factory workers who alleged in a class action suit that their town had been contaminated with dioxin, a toxic byproduct of Agent Orange production that is linked to cancer. The chemical giant also paid $9 million to clean dioxin-contaminated dust from 4,500 homes, according to the 385-page court order.

Accidents and Explosions

By the time of the Monsanto settlement, Chemical Valley had already achieved a degree of global infamy, if only by association.

In 1984, thousands of villagers in India died after methyl isocyanate, or MIC—a chemical used to make pesticides, plastics, and other products—escaped from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. The only place in the U.S. where MIC was manufactured and stockpiled was at Union Carbide's plant in Institute, West Virginia, in the heart of Chemical Valley.

Two years after the Bhopal disaster, Union Carbide sold its factory. The plant saw nonfatal incidents, including a leak, an explosion, and a fire, during the late 1980s and 1990s.

Then, in 2008, after the plant was bought by Bayer CropScience, an explosion killed two workers. Projectiles from the explosion nearly penetrated an aboveground MIC storage tank, drawing attention from federal investigators concerned that the plant was vulnerable to a Bhopal-like disaster.

In 2011, after a nearly 30-year court battle with residents of Institute, Bayer CropScience dropped plans to resume production of MIC, according to the Associated Press, and announced it would dismantle the production unit.

Coal Companies vs. Chemical Companies

When drinking water is contaminated in West Virginia, coal-mining operations are usually the culprit. As coal is prepared for shipment, it is washed with chemicals, including a cleanser known as crude MCHM, which is at the heart of last week's accident.

The toxic wastewater produced in the cleansing process, known as coal slurry, is either injected into the ground—a moratorium bans that for now, says Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition's Stockman—or is stored in impoundment ponds, or sludge "lakes" behind earthen dams.

Last week's spill is believed to be West Virginia's first chemical accident involving contamination of a large municipal system, and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has warned out-of-town media against misattributing blame.

"This was not a coal company incident, this was a chemical company incident," he said, in an account of the scolding published in the Charleston Gazette. "As far as I know, there was no coal company within miles."

But Donna Willis, 58, a disabled legal secretary who grew up in Institute and remembers the toxic releases and explosions, argued that drawing a bright line between the coal and chemical industries as if they have nothing to do with each other misses the larger point.

"I don't drink our water," she said. "Unless it is in a container that says purified water, distilled water, or I bought it myself and put it through my machine, I don't drink anybody's water. Not in this state."

She has so little trust in official pronouncements that she doesn't believe assurances Wednesday from West Virginia American Water, the regional supplier involved in the incident, that Nitro's water is safe again.

"Until the Next Thing Happens"

For all the industrial incidents and accidents, residents say not much in their state seems to change.

After the 2008 explosion at Bayer CropScience, the federal Chemical Safety Board recommended new state and federal safety regulations. The safety board returned to West Virginia in 2010, after an accidental release of toxic gas at the DuPont plant in Belle killed one worker there, and again urged new safety oversight.

But the measures found little support in the capitol in Charleston.

The Chemical Safety Board dispatched a team to West Virginia this week to investigate how 5,000 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCMH) leaked into the Elk River above Charleston.

Maya Nye, who grew up in St. Albans, across the Kanawha River from Nitro, is working to improve federal oversight of the coal and chemical industries in her region. She's president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, which pressed West Virginia lawmakers in 2009 to pass legislation modeled on a California industrial safety program that Nye says has minimized industrial accidents there.

The proposal calls for annual safety audits by public health officials and other chemical safety experts. The Chemical Safety Board made similar recommendations in its reports of the 2008 and 2010 accidents, but the proposal died in the legislature without coming up for a vote.

"We just live with it until the next thing happens and then we rehash it all over again," Nye said. "But it doesn't ever get any better."

Follow Laura Parker on Twitter and Facebook.

Nancy Bevins
Nancy Bevins

"Two weeks after a chemical spill contaminated the drinking water supply for 300,000 West Virginians, state lawmakers moved forward with legislation that environmental groups say weakens stream protections.......The legislation is a coal industry-backed move to rewrite the way West Virginia calculates its limits for aluminum." - Committee moves to weaken water standards - By Ken Ward Jr, Charleston Gazette

Our current administration likes to make a big show of saying they will do whatever it takes to protect WV water.  Yet just a few days ago, they were once again (this will be the 4th time) raising the amount of poison allowed in our streams, rivers, wells and taps.  

But hey, with all the coal runoff and now fracking waste, it's much easier for them to allow MORE chemicals in the water than to hold coal and gas companies accountable for poisoning our citizens.  What happened at Elk River is just the very minute tip of the iceberg.

Lynn Morris
Lynn Morris

I live in the Northern part of WV.  I grew up in a small town called Rivesville on Route #19 along the Monongahela River.  Across the river from Rivesville is a chemical plant.  That is all the people know about the plant.  One day about 5 years ago they evacuated the entire town because of a chemical spill in the river.  For days after the spill there was an awful odor.  These spills have been happening all over WV.  When I was young the streams and rivers were orange from the mines but, they treat the waters and make them look clean.  The water in WV has had chemicals in it for years.  I am 62 years old and I know it was happening before I was born.  There are many cancers and others types of illness.  As you have witnessed with the recent spill.  Nobody cares about laws or life.  Everything is centered around the Coal Industry.  If they tell you it is not coal they are covering up something.  Now, the frackers are moving in.  The waters will be even worse.

Anushri Saxena
Anushri Saxena

@Lynn Morris  It is sad to know that nothing is being done for the residents before the big profit making industries which have authoritatively installed themselves in the valley. Over the years, accidents have been taking place, could you tell me if the victims were adequately compensated or not, and by whom (the government played any role)?

Hope to hear soon from you.

Elise Hokman
Elise Hokman

If the coal industry didn't need the chemical, it wouldn't have been stored - waiting to be used.  The governor is trying to appease coal corporates.

elaine casteel
elaine casteel

I lived in Richwood W.Va. for several years and am now in Wyoming where we are having similar water problems due to fracking. I don't think there are many places left that are not contaminated in some way. Like W.Va.,Wyoming is a big coal producer along with gas and oil. I moved here because of the beautiful mountains and lack of people, but even with our small population ( less than 800,000 in the whole state) we have managed to foul the water supply's of its small communities. Towns like Pavillion and Pinedale have been battling the industry for years, but just like W.Va. our economy depends on these company's. There's 20,000 more wells going in over the next few years. Guess what they use to get the power to these remote well panels!! Check out the documentary Gasland I ( Gasland II just came out) and you'll see some of my neighbors.

We are in a vicious cycle of dependency on these products. They will continue to make them as long as we buy them. Therein lies the solution to some of the problem, but getting off of fossil fuels will be like drug addicts getting off their fix, painful. When I moved here I didn't give a thought to all the gas/oil wells that dotted the landscape or the problems they caused, just one of those many things you just don't think about until something happens. We need to be vigilant and we need to spread the word to everyone we meet. They may not agree with us, but we have planted a seed that will hopefully take root. Thanks for the additional information, I will pass it on.

Anushri Saxena
Anushri Saxena

@elaine casteel What initiative has the government taken up (or not) to clean the site and to prevent inconvenience to the residents?

Kim Feil
Kim Feil

Midland TX just issued a warning that their drinking water didn’t pass muster “after the fact”...oh well just know that a previously confidential GAO report is now available to the public about known ground water contamination from injection wells (yep the ones causing earthquakes). I live, breathe, drink water, and blog in Arlington gasland/wasteland texass.  

Search key words “ Injection Wells are known conduits to ground water contamination - GAO Confidential Doc “. 

Mark Hayes
Mark Hayes

You lose all credibility at the very beginning by calling those things in the first picture "smokestacks". They are cooling towers.

Adam Belcher
Adam Belcher

@Mark Hayes There are four smokestacks and one of them is going, right behind the rightmost cooling tower. It's an easy mistake to those not familiar to PP tech.

Kim Feil
Kim Feil

@Mark Hayes They said that “steam” was coming out of them. That is pretty straightforward if someone was to point source what is in that steam....that would be a brave any rate area source air testing or neaby water testing for “fallout” would be in order....but who wants to te$t for what they don’t want to find?

C. Connelly
C. Connelly

The Kanawha River is formed by the New river and Gauley river coming together.  The economy of WV is tied to coal and chemical, so the citizens are afraid to lose jobs and money.  Therefore won't "rock the boat" against these major polluters.

John Barrett
John Barrett

This once again goes to "prove" that the people and environment come second best to money and profit.


"Clean the Rivers, Replant the Forest,Restore the Earth"

Thom Keely
Thom Keely

Thank you National Geographic. But much more needs to be said. More of its industrial history, more of its geography. A great starting reference is: HuffPost article: "I'm From West Virginia and I've Got Something to Say About the Chemical Spill" by Eric Waggoner, Chair, English department, West Virginia Wesleyan College.  

Patty Rivette
Patty Rivette

water is required for survival!that these cos. pay so much money in gov. pay-offs,and in the politics that go on is really an awful thing. they should be more concerned about safe containment,and the lives of the people.  

Debbie Rupert
Debbie Rupert

It is quite scary what's happening to our water supplies.  Water is one of our essential needs for life and we are already running short of it on the planet. What will we do when there is not enough water to sustain life for all of us?  We can't afford to poison any of it, because we desperately need it all.  One of my favorite videos explains it better:

Clean the Rivers, Replant the Forest,Restore the Earth

Elizabeth Duff
Elizabeth Duff

I have grown up here and am now in my 60's. This area has a terrible reputation over it's pollution. It used to be primarily in the air. Now that it has been cleaned up somewhat, the problems are hidden. The politicians don't want to crack down on the coal and chemical industry because that's where their campaign money comes from. The people don't want to change anything because that is where the highest paying jobs are - never mind that those jobs get to be fewer every year. If you say anything bad in this state about the coal industry, you are lucky if all you get is a good "cussin". I love my state and think the mountains are the most beautiful site in the world. That is until they start blowing the tops off. Between my age and my lungs, I won't be around to see how truly terrible is can get, so in that way, I am lucky.

I was without water for 6 days and will never use the tap water for cooking, coffee, or tea again. I don't trust the powers that be who say the water is safe - unless, of course, if you are pregnant.They don't know if the water is safe and they never will.

Julie Draper
Julie Draper

Interesting article about Chemical Valley.


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