Chemical spillsThe 9 January chemical leak in West Virginia is the latest in a long history of industrial accidents

Published 30 January 2014

The chemical spill that affected the water source in nine West Virginia counties in early January is part of a long history of industrial accidents resulting from the concentration of chemical and coal-mining operations in the region. The 9 January spill, which saw coal-cleansing chemical which leaked from Freedom Industries’ storage tank into the Elk River, leaving more than 300,000 residents without access to clean tap water for days, is the latest in a history of pollution which has poisoned groundwater, spewed toxic gas emissions, and caused fires and explosions.

The chemical spill that affected the water source in nine West Virginia counties in early January is part of a long history of industrial accidents resulting from the concentration of chemical and coal-mining operations in the region. As National Geographic reports, it is not unusual to find black water running from kitchen faucets in homes outside Charleston, or to see children with chronic skin rashes.

Welcome to our world,” says Vivian Stockman, 52, a longtime resident of rural Roane County, north of Charleston, the state capital, and an activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

The area surrounding the Kanawha River Valley, also known as Chemical Valley, has a history of pollution. The coal-cleansing chemical which leaked from Freedom Industries’ storage tank into the Elk River on 9, January 2014 is the latest in a history of pollution which has poisoned groundwater, spewed toxic gas emissions, and caused fires and explosions.

The recent discovery of Marcellus Shale has caused an influx of even more chemical companies to the area, considered the largest concentration of chemical plants in the United States for nearly a century. “We are seeing a renaissance now because of Marcellus Shale,” said Kevin DiGregorio, executive director of the Chemical Alliance Zone, a nonprofit economic development group dedicated to building the chemical industry in West Virginia. “To those of us in the chemical industry, safety is number one,” he said. “We drink the water, too.”

The Elk River spill, the third accident in the last five years, left 300,000 residents around Charleston without tap water for days.

Contaminated drinking water in West Virginia is often blamed on coal-mining operations. In preparation for shipment, coal is washed with chemicals, including a cleanser known as crude MCHM, the culprit in January’s contamination. The wastewater produced in the cleansing process, known as coal slurry, is either injected underground or is stored in impounded ponds, or sludge “lakes,” behind earthen dams.

The spill is considered to be West Virginia’s first chemical accident involving contamination of a large municipal system. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has warned against misattributing blame. “This was not a coal company incident, this was a chemical company incident,” he said, according to the Charleston Gazette. “As far as I know, there was no coal company within miles.”

Many residents in the region do not distinguish between water contamination from coal or chemical industry operations since both industries are closely linked.

Legislators in the region have seen but limited success in passing new state and federal safety regulations. The federal Chemical Safety Board is now investigating how 5,000 gallons of the chemical MCHM leaked into the Elk River.

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