It could happen anywhere: West Virginia chemical spill should raise flags in Chattanooga

It could happen anywhere: West Virginia chemical spill should raise flags in Chattanooga

January 15th, 2014 in Opinion Times


Often, we hear the idiom: Dilution is the solution to pollution. That may be true for some pollutants, but certainly not for others. For comparison's sake, the 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol believed to have leaked into the Elk River would roughly fill half to three-quarters of a 21-foot-round, above-ground swimming pool.

Hardly a day goes by when Chattanoogans aren't reminded - and rightfully so - how blessed the city is by its perch on the Tennessee River.

The Tennessee winds 652 miles from its headwaters in Knoxville. It flows through Loudon, Cleveland, Dayton and Soddy-Daisy before it reaches Chattanooga. From here, it moves through Bridgeport and Huntsville and Florence in Alabama before turning north to divide Middle Tennessee from West Tennessee and finally mingle with the waters of the Ohio River.

It provides water for 4 million people and thousands of industries. It loans cooling water to the power plants that make electricity for people in seven states.

Today, we have a new blessing: That we are not Charleston, W. Va., where a chemical spill tainted water in the 172-mile Elk River, which, after running into the 97-mile Kanawha River, also flows to the Ohio.

West Virginia's Elk River spill should be a wake-up call to Chattanooga and the rest of the country.

A very dangerous chemical, leaking from a ruptured, aging tank on the bank of the Elk, cut off drinking and washing water to 300,000 people in nine counties downriver of Charleston. That's almost twice the population of the city of Chattanooga. And the water was off for everyone for five days. For some, the water is still off limits. No water treatment system would remove the chemical, nor would boiling the tainted water.

People were told: Don't drink the water. Don't touch it. Don't wash with it. Don't cook with it. Don't use it for anything except flushing the toilets. The chemical's warning reads: Exposure symptoms include severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, nonstop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering. Health officials said over the weekend that about 170 patients had been treated in emergency rooms for symptoms related to chemical exposure.

Imagine such a scenario in Chattanooga. Restaurants couldn't operate. All food manufacturing would have to cease. Other manufacturing where workers come in contact with water as an additive or washing agent also would have to stop.

Now if you're thinking that aging chemical tanks sitting alongside a major river upstream of drinking water intakes sounds dangerous, it is.

But look around you. On our river and any other, tank farms on the riverbank are common. It's common because the chemicals stored there, or the products they are used with, are most often shipped by river. In West Virginia, the chemical spilled Thursday was 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, known as MCHM. It is used to wash coal. Coal is routinely shipped to feed the electric power plants that line rivers across the country.

What's also common is that oversight of many of those tank farms is lax. Very lax.

The last inspection of tanks in Charleston was in 1991 when different chemicals were stored there -- chemicals considered hazardous because they were flammable or explosive, according to West Virginia environmental regulators. In more recent years the tanks stored MCHM, which is not classified as hazardous. Under that scenario, the only required permits were industrial stormwater permits. Stormwater regulations generally apply in the event of a leak, and there is no provision or manpower for government preventive inspections.

"Basically they (the facility owner) had to monitor the runoff from the rain and send us the results every quarter. Those were the only regulatory requirements," Randy Huffman, the head of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, told CNN reporters.

But there's more. Truthfully, little is known about MCHM because in 40 years it hasn't been fully tested. The same is true for some 85,000 other chemicals in commerce right now in the United States.

At the time of the spill, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn't have a standard for how much of this chemical in water is safe to drink. But they had to come up with one in short order by extrapolating on what little research had been done with the chemical -- an animal study that established the lethal dose for rats.

Why the dearth of information? Why else: Members of Congress have been debating for years whether to update the 1976 law that governs these chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act.

This spill, by exposing regulatory gaps and omissions in the country's chemical control laws, may -- and certainly should -- change things.