West Virginia Chemical Spill Highlights Need For Improved Chemical Protections

The Jan. 9 chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia provides an unfortunate case example of a much broader set of problems with our nation’s system of protecting the public from chemical exposures. An estimated 7,500 gallons of crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), a chemical used in coal production, leaked from a chemical company storage tank sited next to the Elk River, just upstream from Charleston’s major water treatment plant, and contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 residents.

First, we know little about the health risks posed by MCHM, one of the more than 60,000 chemicals that were ‘grandfathered’ into commerce under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, our nation’s outdated and ineffective law for assessing and controlling chemical hazards. In fact, only about 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals in commerce have undergone testing to assess their long-term as well as short-term health hazards. The material safety data sheet prepared by the chemical’s manufacturer includes results from only one short-term toxicity study each for oral and skin exposures to determine the amount needed to kill half of the tested rats, and one test to assess skin irritation. 

Second, unlike some other states, West Virginia doesn’t require monitoring of chemical plants that only store, rather than produce, chemicals. The plant had only one permit related to the discharge of storm water runoff into the Elk River. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn't regulate most aboveground chemical storage for many industries, though companies with permits to discharge chemicals into water are required to prepare a spill prevention plan covering those chemicals. Though the chemical company was required to report the spill to the state, MCHM isn’t listed among the hundreds of chemicals that would require that the EPA be notified.

Furthermore, the information that was available apparently wasn’t shared with local officials responsible for developing emergency response plans in the event of a chemical accident. The chemical company included MCHM on a list of chemicals with "immediate (acute) hazards" required under federal law (known as a Tier Two Emergency and Hazardous Chemical Inventory) that was submitted to the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. However, this information apparently wasn’t shared with the Kanawha Putnam Emergency Planning Committee, the county-level group that develops local emergency-response plans, which didn't know that the chemical was stored near the water treatment plant.

As unpleasant and difficult as this incident has been for the people of the Charleston area, the potential looms for substantially more devastating accidents and chemical exposures. After investigating a 2008 explosion at a chemical plant in Institute, West Virginia that killed two workers, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended three years ago that the state create a new program to prevent and respond to chemical accidents and releases in the Kanawha Valley where Charleston is located. To date, no plan has been developed. The latest incident highlights the need for a substantial overhaul of our nation’s approach to safeguarding the public and worker health from chemical exposures.

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