Friday, January 10, 2014

Chemical Spill Contaminates Water Supply

A relatively innocuous industrial chemical leak has turned into a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia. Yesterday morning, according to news reports (a particularly good series of updates from WSAZ), a leaking chemical tank at Freedom Industries escaped containment and entered the Elk River. Apparently the company is located just upstream of the water intake at a local water treatment plant so this is a potential problem (pardon the understatement).

The Problem

The chemical involved, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), is an industrial chemical used locally in the chemical floatation of coal, a technique used to clean up fine coal dust. In the spectrum of industrial chemicals it is not particularly nasty, but you don’t want to get it on you or in you; it does have some adverse effects (again, excuse the slight understatement) on the human body.

The major problem here is that there is apparently no good way of removing the chemical from the water. Nor is it one of the chemicals, again apparently, that is typically tested for by the local utility (news reports indicate that samples are being sent to an outside lab).

So, until the issue is resolved, the local water company and government officials are telling people not to drink or use the local water system water for any body contact uses; and don’t bother boiling the water, that doesn’t fix it. State and Federal agencies are getting bottled water into the area and the National Guard will be delivering bulk water where it is needed.


The reactions of the Federal, State and local agencies are entirely reasonable, this is drinking water we are talking about here. Having said that, however, let’s take a non-reactionary look at the problem.

First off, all of the symptoms and medical conditions being referred to in the news story that are associated with MCHM come from contact with the chemical as it is coming out of the leaking tank. As it enters the water of the Elk River it becomes diluted and much less hazardous. At some level of dilution it will have no discernable effect on the human body, even if ingested. It is not clear from the documents I can find on-line what that level of dilution is.

There is a very real possibility that all of this foofaraw is about a non-issue. The water coming out of the pipes from this drinking water company may be perfectly safe. Of course, if I were the manager of the facility, I would not take the chance; I would do just what is currently being done. The problem is we just don’t know.

Chemical Security Issue

This brings up an interesting chemical security issue. MCHM is not listed on the DHS list of chemicals of interest (COI) for the CFATS program. It is not listed on the EPA list of chemicals of concern for a risk management program, nor is it listed on the OSHA list of chemicals for the process safety management program. So, no one specifically regulates this chemical beyond DOT’s regulation of it as a flammable chemical (UN 2296, PG II) in transportation.

The security of this particular installation may be regulated by the Coast Guard (news pictures of the facility show what looks like a barge loading/unloading facility), but generally there are no requirements to provide security protection of storage tanks of this material (or thousands of other industrial chemicals). If this leak had been the result of a terrorist attack on the facility, it would have been spectacularly successful, particularly for a relatively small leak (as chemical catastrophes go).

We focus our chemical security efforts on facilities that hold chemicals that will have catastrophic consequences if they are released into the environment. And those certainly need to be regulated. No government, however, can afford to regulate the security at facilities that would just discomfort the populous (and let’s face it, that is all that is really happening here) in the event of a release.

And no company, no matter how large and profitable, can afford to apply more than the most basic security measures (a fence) to storage tanks for all of the industrial chemicals that could discomfort their neighbors if they were inadvertently or deliberately released into the environment. We, as a society, need to acknowledge that.

We cannot prevent all terrorist attacks, we should not try to. The measures necessary to even try to make that attempt would be so onerous and costly that we would fulfill the terrorists goals of making our society untenable without them having to actually attack us.


Angry in WV said...

You are correct that officials Do Not know what exposure to diluted amounts of this chemical will cause. So how about they send you a tank full and you drink, cook, bathe and do laundry in it for a week and let us know what happens. Also, update us in a few years from now so we can follow your health progress.

PJCoyle said...

NOT ME. I'm a professional chemist and I BELIEVE that the chemical is probably safe at the levels in question, but I DO NOT KNOW that to be the case.

This is why I agree with the current actions and would do the same myself if it were my responsibility to make the decision.

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