US chemical spill contaminates water supplies


Households and businesses in parts of the area affected by a massive chemical spill in West Virginia, US, are beginning to return to normal after being without potable water for several days.

On 9 January, a large quantity of (4-methylcyclohexyl)methanol (MCHM) leaked from a tank at a Freedom Industries storage site near Charleston. According to the state Department of Environment Protection (WVDEP), the secondary containment facility around the tank failed, and the chemical escaped into the Elk river, contaminating water supplies for an area of 3000 square miles.

The irritant and potentially toxic nature of MCHM, which is used as a frothing agent for cleaning coal, rendered water supplies unusable for anything but flushing toilets until levels remain below 1ppm for at least 24 hours. This condition has already been met in parts of the affected area, and homes and businesses have been allowed to begin using their water again after flushing their systems. In the meantime, authorities are bringing in fresh water for residents.

Freedom Industries has already emptied three more MCHM tanks at the site, and has been ordered by the WVDEP to cease operations and remove the contents of a further 11 above-ground tanks to alternative facilities with appropriate secondary containment until it can prove the Charleston site is sound and has made arrangements to remediate contamination to soil and groundwater.


Related Content

Response to tainted US drinking water criticised

21 May 2015 News and Analysis

news image

Scientific advice in the US is poor when it comes to responding to drinking water contamination

Investigators find cause of West Virginia chemical spill

24 July 2014 Business

news image

Holes in uninspected storage tanks led to leak that contaminated water supplies

Most Commented

The nuclear danger of iodine

20 May 2015 Comments

news image

It may not be an element you think of as problematic. But, as Mark Foreman explains, iodine causes very complicated problems ...

The sultan of synthesis

11 April 2014 Feature

news image

Phil Baran is spurring organic chemists to rethink how they make complex compounds, as Mark Peplow discovers