Going Miles for Clean Water

Sasha Rivera, Contributing Writer

Water is a valuable resource we often take for granted. The human body is about 60 percent water, and the liquid is necessary for survival. But, imagine not being able to use tap water for a day except to flush the toilet. Now, imagine going over a week without that water, and having to wait in outrageous lines just to get a few bottles of precious H2O. You can’t shower, you can’t drink, and you can’t even make packaged ramen. Just one sip and your throat is already in pain. All this, just because of industrial irresponsibility. On January 9, this is exactly what happened to West Virginians.
According to Fox News, 300,000 people in West Virginia were put at risk after the Freedom Industries’ chemical plant in Charleston accidentally leaked about 5,000 gallons of a deadly chemical into the Elk River. The chemical, called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol or MCHM, is a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process. If ingested or inhaled, the chemical causes rashes, vomiting, and diarrhea. However, according to West Virginia’s Poison Control director Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, little is still known about the chemical’s safety implications because it has not been thoroughly researched.
For 11 days, residents were forbidden from using their tap water, which ran in an unnatural yellow color, and had to rely purely on bottled water. People living in Charleston had to drive 50 miles all the way to Huntington, where the water was unaffected, just to get clean water. Nine counties in West Virginia were given the emergency announcement, while schools in five of the counties had to close. Businesses that served food had to close as well without the use of water.
The most outrageous factor of this incident is that the tanks containing the chemical were old and in need of replacement. Unfortunately, refurbishment costs money that many coal and chemical companies are not willing to spend, even if upgrades can prevent hazardous catastrophes like this. Officials from Freedom Industries were well aware of the dangers in having the plant located upstream of the intake facility for West Virginia American Water, which provides water service to much of the state. While the short-term symptoms of MCHM have been identified, the long-term effects remain a mystery. Although the water ban was finally lifted on Jan. 18, pregnant women must still refrain from drinking the water for now. That’s not all.
Last week Freedom Industries admitted to investigators that MCHM was not the only harmful chemical stored in the tank. Another substance, PPH, also leaked into the river. Although data sheets list it as less harmful than MCHM, the chemical’s toxicology is fairly unknown. According to RT.com, officials claim that PPH was probably removed from drinking water by Elk River’s filtration plant, but tests are still being conducted.
The disaster is only one of many. Just like the British Petroleum oil spill in 2010, poor regulations have brought harm to thousands of people. If the equipment had monitored for malfunctions, the entire situation could have been prevented. Also, there is nothing documented about possible long-term effects of PPH or MCHM. In fact, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, only 10 percent of 85,000 synthetic commercially-used chemicals have been screened for toxicity. Because of faulty equipment, unknown dangers, and lack of regulations, thousands of people are at risk.