For West Virginians – Still Major Unknowns about Chemical Spill

Jan 16, 2014
Originally published on January 17, 2014 12:19 pm


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Water officials in West Virginia are gradually lifting do not use orders for customers, after last week's chemical spill into the Elk River. But late yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control advised pregnant women not to drink the tap water still, out of an abundance of caution.

A lot of what's been revealed about this spill has come through the reporting of Ken Ward, Jr., who covers coal and the environment for the Charleston Gazette. State environmental inspectors told him when they went to the storage facility of Freedom Industries they found a 400 square foot pool of liquid several inches deep. And inside that pool...

KEN WARD, JR.: The word they used was an up-swelling of some of the chemical. And I said what are you talking about? And they said: Well, kind of like an artesian well. And I said so it's like you had this little fountain of chemical coming up. And they said yes.

BLOCK: Ken Ward, Jr. says that pool was in spilling out of the facility and ultimately into the Elk River.

JR.: This facility is kind of a nexus where a bunch of different laws intersect. Federal emergency planning laws for this sort of thing apparently don't apply to this facility because it's not listed by the federal Department of Transportation as a hazardous material. So local emergency planners never looked at it to figure out, you know, what to do about something like this. The state emergency planners never looked at it because of that.

There's also federal laws that require utilities and water regulatory agencies to consider threats to drinking water sources. There's no evidence that anybody ever day that. I mean what you have here was a major regional drinking water plant that was very close to a facility storing significant quantities of toxic materials. And everybody knew it was there but nobody ever did anything about it.

BLOCK: The chemical that we're talking about here is MCHM. Ken, remind us what it's used for.

JR.: It's a chemical that's used in the process of cleaning impurities from coal so the coal can be shipped to power plants.

BLOCK: You know, I talked with the mayor of Charleston, Danny Jones, of the program earlier this week. And he described this company, Freedom Industries, as, in his words a small group of renegades, indicating that this company was, you know, a bad apple, an aberration.

Based on the reporting you've done, does what we're seeing here with Freedom Industries point to a far broader question of industry in West Virginia, how it's regulated and what's known?

JR.: Well, I think there certainly is a far broader problem than one set of what the mayor calls renegades. Because certainly, you know, there have been plenty of major accidents here that involve companies that were hardly smalltime renegades. You know, the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, Massey Energy was a significantly-sized coal company.

So I think, you know, there's a misconception that the public has and certainly it is fostered by business and industry that, you know, these government inspectors are bunch of jackbooted thugs that are knocking down the doors of factories to shut down jobs. When the fact is that most industrial facilities in this country will never ever see an OSHA inspector, will never ever see an EPA inspector.

One of the few industries in this country where inspections are actually mandated is the coal industry. The government has to do them. Congress has never mandated that every chemical plant be inspected by the EPA. And I think that probably citizens think that is what happens, but it's not. And that's how you end out with a situation like this.

BLOCK: What is still not known? What are the main unanswered questions about this spill for you?

JR.: The major unknown is what exactly is this stuff and at what level will it hurt us and our children? And how long is it going to take it to get it out of our systems? I mean there's an influx of people to emergency rooms. And we had one local doctor expressing serious concerns about the sorts of symptoms that she was seeing. And the Centers for Disease Control and the EPA need to answer some questions about that.

And I think the other thing that really needs to be known is how much of it got into the soil and how long is it going to be there? And how long is that going to take to clean up.

Now, Randy Hoffman, who's the secretary of the State Department of Environmental Protection here, promised yesterday in an interview with me that there was no way they were going to stop cleanup efforts at that site, or allow the cleanup efforts to be stopped until there was 100 percent certainty, that no more of this was ever going to get in the Elk River. And I said, well, how long is that going to take? And he said, well, that's the multimillion dollar question, isn't it?

BLOCK: Ken Ward, Jr. with the Charleston Gazette. Ken, thanks very much

JR.: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.