Little is known about the chemical contaminating West Virginia's tap water

Authorities aren't sure how much of the chemical spilled or when water will be safe to drink again

Published January 10, 2014 9:35PM (EST)

Hundreds of thousands of West Virginians across nine counties are without tap water following a chemical leak that occurred upstream of the state's largest water treatment facility. And a press conference held Friday by Jeff McIntyre, president of the West Virginia American Water Co., which provides most of the area's household water, provided few answers. Officials still don't know when the leak started, how much of the chemical spilled into the Elk River or when the water will be safe to drink again.

They also don't know much about the chemical that spilled: 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or MCHM. According to the state's Department of Environmental Protection, MCHM is used in coal preparation plants to wash coal of impurities. But McIntyre was at a loss to explain more, saying only, “this not a chemical that’s typical to be in water treatment process."

"I've been working for 25 years on water-related issues, and this is the first I've heard of this chemical," Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, told Salon. That doesn't necessarily mean that its use is unprecedented, he said, but it does mean that there's little safety information available.

MCHM is classified as an irritant, and isn't considered toxic unless consumed orally. Some studies have shown that chronic exposure to the chemical can cause serious health problems, but it's not expected to remain in the water long enough for that to be a concern. Still, Ziemkiewicz said, "I think the state has been prudent in advising people not to drink it or bathe in it. You don't want to get it in your eyes or breathe it in."

The EPA doesn't have a drinking water standard for MCHM, which water providers normally use to determine when a toxic chemical's concentration is high enough to warrant shutting down their delivery system. Of course, the exact concentration of the chemical in the water is unknown, too. The closest thing Ziemkiewicz could find to MCHM was a group of compounds known as foaming agents, which are classified at a secondary level: While regulated, they aren't considered to be as dangerous as something like arsenic or lead. The EPA limits the concentration of all foaming agents to 0.5 milligrams per liter. Ziemkiewicz's best estimate for the concentration of MCHM heading down the Elk River toward the water treatment plant is 40 milligrams per liter -- 80 times that limit.

Such spills have occurred before, on a much larger scale and involving more dangerous contaminants. In 1988, a storage tank near Pittsburgh, Pa., collapsed, spilling nearly 800,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Monongahela and Ohio rivers. In that case, however, towns downriver of the spill were able to shut off their intake valves before the plume of diesel reached them. In West Virginia, it's expected that the MCHM will quickly be dispersed by the Elk River's rapid current, but it's too late for the water distribution system, which has already been contaminated. Before the tap water can be deemed safe, the system will have to be flushed out -- all 1,500 miles of it.


By Lindsay Abrams

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Chemical Spill Water Safety West Virginia