Friday marks eight days since a chemical leaked from a storage tank on the Elk River contaminating the water supply of 300,000 West Virginians, and some are still unable to use their water.
At the Capitol, lawmakers and state leaders are already investigating the spill and looking into new regulations to prevent others from happening in the future. The first piece of legislation to regulate the chemical industry was introduced Thursday in the Senate.
The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Senator John Unger who said it would require above ground holding facilities, storing any type of liquid, to be inspected just as they are when stored below ground.
“What this legislation will do is close that loophole,” he said. “It will treat above ground storage facilities the same as we do underground storage facilities.”
The bill uses pre-existing standards for chemical companies that store liquids underground and the same inspectors who are already employed and examining those underground tanks.
“I don’t see this as a big burden on the industry itself. They always say an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure,” Unger said.
“So, if we had such an inspection, registration inspection type program in place for above ground facilities, than this could have been prevented.”
But Senator Herb Snyder said he doesn’t think proposed legislation will stop there.
“The one issue that fell through the cracks here was that you had something that could happen above a major metropolitan water intake. That is going to be the heart of what we’re looking at, what is near and around these water intakes,” he said after a Senate floor session Thursday.
“We don’t need a knee jerk reaction and start passing legislation next week. We need to understand from the people on the ground, how can we see that this never happens again?”
A chemist who specializes in water, Snyder explained little was known crude MCHM- the chemical that leaked into the water supply- aside from what was on the material safety data sheets that are standard for all chemicals.
He likened the MSDS sheet for crude MCHM to one on a can of motor oil. Specifically, he says, it will not dissolve in water, but it will flush through the system as West Virginia American Water officials have said.
“If you mixed motor oil into a glass or a pot of water, no it’s not soluble, but it’s going to go,” he explained. “Some of it’s going to mix in just through physical agitation and you have that in the river.”
“It’s a lightweight oil, like olive oil. It will physically mix. It’s not like a teaspoon of sugar or salt that totally dissolves and is very, very soluble, but there will be some mixing.”
Because of its low solubility rate and the coating effect of oil, it was too much for the carbon activated filters West Virginia American Water thought would sift out the chemical.
“I can’t blame them because activated carbon filters will take out organics, but it’s that they didn’t realize how much there was,” he said. “The system became quickly overloaded and in this case it could not take it all out.”
Had there been communication between the water and chemicals companies, Snyder said, the intake system could have been shut off and the contamination avoided, but he added the entire situation could also have been much, much worse.
“We’re very fortunate that this was not something extremely toxic,” Snyder said. “If this had been benzene or cyanide or I could just name millions of chemicals that are known toxic, there wouldn’t have been enough hospitals in the state to hold everybody.”
Senator Unger’s investigation begins Friday with a hearing including Major General James Hoyer of the National Guard and members of the state Department of Environmental Protection response team.