Last January 9, a large section of West Virginia, including the capital at Charleston, lost drinking and washing water. Chemicals had spilled into the Elk River, contaminating water supplies for an area of 3000 square miles. (More: US chemical spill contaminates water supplies) At the time, the name of the chemicals was either unknown or unreported in the media, but early effects on people included rashes, nausea, and vomiting, and 13 people were hospitalized. For days, people and animals relied on trucked-in water for drinking, bathing, and pretty much everything except flushing toilets.
We now know that the chemical was (4-methylcyclohexyl) methanol (MCHM), used as a frothing agent for cleaning coal. We also know that the chemicals leaked from storage tanks at a Freedom Industries storage site right next to the river. And that there is no record of any sort of formal, industry-approved inspection performed on any of the company’s storage tanks before the January spill. And although there is a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, until this June, there was no state requirement that above-ground storage tanks even be registered. (Legislation is still being drafted, and will likely continue into next year.)
The (Federal) Chemical Safety Board, which investigates spills, concluded that the spill was caused by corrosion at the bottom of two storage tanks. But as one commenter asserts, that’s the cause of the spill, not the cause of the disaster. The disaster was caused by poor planning and lax inspections.
Read a roundup by science journalist Rebecca Trager: Cause Found For Large Chemical Spill In West Virginia – Scientific American.