By: Michael L. Wright
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West Virginia Chemical Spill Still Leaves Questions Three Months Later
Three Months After Freedom Industries Caused a West Virginia Chemical Spill and Contaminated Drinking Water in Nine W.V. Counties
While residents are still cautious or refuse to drink the water in the wake of the West Virginia chemical spill, health officials in the state are trying to get a better scope on the magnitude of the damage. On March 21, West Virginia Bureau for Public Health Commissioner, Dr. Letitia Tierney, issued a press release calling on physicians involved in treating patients with possible side-effects from the chemical spill, to submit any pertinent data. In addition, letters were sent to 865 doctors across the nine counties where chemicals leaked into the water supply.
In January, Freedom Industries, based in Charleston South Carolina, leaked over 7,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane menthol (MCHM) into the Elk River. In addition to MCHM, another chemical with polyglycol ethers (PPH) also leaked into county water lines, comprising 5 percent of MCHM composition in the tanks. CDC officials from the Center for Disease and Control (CDC) believe the amount of PPH that seeped into the water supply was not enough to pose a danger to human health. The source of the leak can be traced to Freedom Industries, a Charleston-based company that manufactures specialized chemicals for mining and construction. The company is also known for making chemicals for the coal industry.
MCHM is a chemical used for washing coal ash before the commodity hits the market, but it is a harmful irritant to humans, causing such reactions as skin and breathing problems. The chemical is also known for its licorice-like smell, which is how residents have been able to detect any abnormalities in their water. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency, urging 300,000 people not to use the water for domestic consumption under any circumstance, and President Obama followed with a federal state of emergency shortly thereafter. These state of emergencies have since been lifted. Residents have been heeding government warnings, and many West Virginia residents in the area went without water for over a week.
Despite lifting the ban on drinking water and assurances that the water is safe to consume, many people still do not trust the water system. They are choosing to buy bottled water, instead of relying on tap water. Many are taking even drastic measures, like bathing in bottled water, or will travel miles to a relative or friend’s house for a shower. Empty water isles have been a common sight throughout West Virginia stores, due to the mistrust and fear spreading rampant throughout communities. Buying bottled water for bathing and drinking needs has become a new way of life for many, but the frequent buying of outside water sources places undue economic stress on families. A general air of uncertainty hangs over impacted communities. People fear that the chemical will be absorbed in the skin while bathing, along with breathing in noxious vapors when taking a hot shower. Officials have conceded that the long-term effects MCHM are unknown, and there is little data in regards to hazards like carcinogen levels.
Other West Virginia Chemical Spill Lawsuits
Many residents have translated trepidation into action. Freedom Industries, along with West Virginia-American Water (WVAW) are the two main defendants in numerous chemical spill lawsuits. Freedom Industries has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in response to the piling litigation. Many of these water contamination lawsuits have been filed on behalf of businesses that incurred revenue losses during the spill. A slew of class action lawsuits are being started by individuals as well, including a recent case that was filed in the West Virginia Southern District Court, naming Freedom Industries, American Water Works, WVAW, Eastman Chemical, the company that supplied crude-based MCHM to Freedom Industries, as defendants. (case no. 2:1-cv-13164) Plaintiffs are claiming that these water-based agencies did not adequately monitor the water supply and failed in issuing a warning to the public
West Virginia Chemical Spills
This isn’t the first time West Virginia residents have had to deal with chemical spills. West Virginia and Ohio residents dealt with a similar incident when it was found DuPont contaminated drinking water with C8, a chemical used to make Teflon. This chemical spill took place in 2004 from DuPont’s Washington Works Plant, in Parkersburg West Virginia. According to court records there are currently more than 75 C8 lawsuits filed against DuPont alleging serious side-effects from the contaminated drinking water. (in Re: E.K. DuPont DeNemours and Company C-8 Personal Injury Litigation, MDL No. 2433)
After the spill and initial lawsuits the C8 Science panel was established by the courts to investigate the ramifications and potential side effects believed to be from C8 contaminated drinking water include:
- Kidney Cancer
- Testicular Cancer
- Thyroid Disease
- Inflammatory Bowl Disease (Ulcerative Colitis)
- High Cholesterol
According to 2012 statistics, 2,161,592 pounds of chemicals were released into West Virginia water supplies, and of the 252 reported incidents, 47 specific cases can be traced to storage tank and oil structure spills.
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