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Chemical Spill Leaves Many West Virginians Without Clean Tap Water, Unclear When It Will Be Safe

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Days after an industrial chemical spill was discovered in West Virginia, people in all or part of nine counties are still unable to use their tap water.  Governor Tomblin’s office Tweeted another reminder for residents.

Thousands of gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, used to process coal, were reported by local officials to have spilled from the Charleston chemical  facility of Freedom Industries into the Elk River, not far from a public water intake.  Company President Gary Southern said in part of a short press release January 10, “At this point, Freedom Industries is still working to determine the amount of 4-methylcyclohexamenmethanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in processing coal, that has been released, as the first priority was safety, containment and cleanup.”

Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign Director and West Virginia resident, Mary Anne Hitt, issued a statement in response to the spill. “Our thoughts are with the more than 300,000 people in eastern West Virginia affected by this toxic chemical spill, upstream from the largest drinking water source in West Virginia.  Coal mining communities are faced with the dangers of water pollution from coal mining and pollution every day.  This spill pulls the curtain back on the coal industry’s widespread and risky use of dangerous chemicals, and is an important reminder that coal-related pollution poses a serious danger to nearby communities.  Americans, and the people of West Virginia, deserve greater accountability and transparency about coal industry practices.”

Utility West Virginia American Water has begun a process of lifting use bans for a few residents and flushing the system.  The utility and public health officials are using the guideline of one part per million of the chemical allowed in drinking water.  However, as explained by Environmental Defense Fund scientist Richard Denison in the article linked via the EDF Tweet below, this estimate of a safe level is a crude one at best.

A lack of government oversight or reliable health information about toxic industrial chemicals is a hallmark of what many view as America’s broken chemical safety policy.

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