A Century of Controversy, Accidents in West Virginia’s Chemical Valley in Lead-up to Spill

Last week’s chemical spill is only the latest chemical accident in the Kanawha River Valley.

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


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.

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.

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."

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