A Year After West Virginia Chemical Spill, Some Signs of Safer Water

A handful of states have adopted new regulations for chemical storage tanks.
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Workers inspect the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia, after last January's chemical spill. The spill contaminated the water supply of nearly 200,000 West Virginians.

A year ago Friday, Rebecca Roth experienced what she calls one of the "worst fears" she has known as a mother.

A large-scale chemical spill on the Elk River near her home in Charleston, West Virginia, had unleashed an unknown amount of a coal-washing agent, possibly poisoning the local water supply. Roth, who had a two-year-old daughter and was then pregnant, was afraid she "could not keep her children safe and healthy."

For weeks, nearly 300,000 people around Charleston, the state capital, were told not to drink or bathe with local tap water, since the spilled chemical-known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol—can be harmful if ingested. (Learn more about the science behind the spill.)

The experience spurred Roth and others to start advocating for better government oversight of public water supplies. A year later, their efforts have borne fruit.

West Virginia's governor Ray Tomblin signed a law last April that strengthens standards for new aboveground storage tanks—the source of the Charlestown spill—and requires inspections of existing ones. The state completed inspections on January 1, finding that about 1,100 tanks did not meet the new requirements.

"That shows there are still tanks out there that may be leaking today," says Angie Rosser, executive director of the advocacy group West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

She notes that the 48,000-gallon tank that leaked into the Elk River was rusty and had been built in 1938.

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The new state law also requires public utilities to submit a plan for how they will respond to any chemical spills.

Before the Elk River spill, not a single U.S. state was inspecting aboveground storage tanks, says Rosser.

But in recent months, Virginia, Indiana, and Georgia have passed measures to introduce inspections.

A federal bill introduced last year by U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, aimed to take such rules nationwide. That effort failed to gain traction, but his office says the lawmaker intends to try again in the new Congress.

The former president of the company that owned the tank, Freedom Industries, faces federal charges of fraud and lying under oath in connection with the incident. Freedom Industries went bankrupt shortly after the spill, and the tanks were dismantled. Since the spill, the local water utility has installed new treatment and chemical monitoring equipment.

But Roth says many of her neighbors still don't trust the safety of their water: "I'm not convinced that things have changed significantly."

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