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West Virginia Officials Warn Not to Use Water Following Chemical Leak [video] (wchstv.com)
78 points by jotm 1348 days ago | hide | past | web | 68 comments | favorite

I'm from Charleston WV and live a couple miles from where the spill took place. People stormed stores for bottled water and some even resorted to stealing to avoid getting the rationed amount. About 1/6 of the state's population doesn't have access to drinking water and many don't have the money to "take a vacation" and leave the region. Businesses can't operatorate and the economic repercussions will devistate the region. The question everyone has is how long will it last? The chemical is dispersed in the water pipes spanning 8 counties and there is no easy way to get it out. We have been angered about the lack of national attention this has received and it makes us feel like no one cares about our state.

I don't mean to sound unsympathetic, because this is truly an unpleasant, if not dangerous, situation, but don't more people keep a supply of water somewhere in their home? I don't really consider myself THAT well-prepared a survivalist, but I've got about 40 gallons of drinking water stored up. I would highly recommend that everybody do the same. Drinking water is vital, and so many things can interrupt your supply that you really need to look into storing several days worth.

Again - I don't mean to sound unsympathetic - I wish everyone in your area a speedy resolution to this situation.

Even FEMA doesn't recommend you store that much water - they were recommending one gallon per person per day for three days before considering anything else (climate, type of emergency, children/pets/elderly/sick people). Plus you have to make sure that it hasn't expired or gone bad... 40 gallons is a lot more than people will consider storing. Hell, I don't even have space for 40 gallons of water anywhere. I barely have any room for a 3 day stash of food/water and a first aid kit. Plus maybe some of these people do have a good amount of drinking water stored up for an emergency, but there is no ETA on cleanup yet so they have to prepare for the worst. Even 40 gallons isn't enough if this goes on for a week for a family.

Also as a co-owner of a small fast food restaurant (in northern california), I can't use stored water for anything related to running the business. 40 gallons is a literal drop in the bucket in one day of use too, let alone however many days it will take to clean up the spill. That's a lot of businesses closed right there because they literally can't do anything to prevent that from happening. That alone, even before considering individual water needs, is a big deal.

Perhaps you live in a region with a characteristic natural disaster threat, or maybe you live in an urban area (or at least, you do not draw your water from a private or local-community well).

WV is a low-risk area for various natural disasters [1] . And it is relatively rural and gets good rainfall - folks aren't generally depending on giant city-wide water infrastructure or imported water, but rather on smaller, distributed water supplies that are individually perceived to be rather dependable.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/05/01/weekinreview/0...

Drinking water isn't the only consideration. People can't take showers, cook with water, or even wash their hands. It wouldn't be a problem if it was one day, but if it goes on it will make living in the area terrible. The real issue is they don't know how long the region will be effected.

In the short term, drinking water is 100 times more important than the other items.

Long term I don't know how they are going to deal with something of this magnitude.

No, almost nobody with public utility water service stores water, beyond perhaps a few gallons if they buy bottled water.

I used to live in a town where there was a cancer warning on the back of the water bill because of the (naturally occurring) radium content of the water (sourced from wells). We had a water service bring 5-gallon jugs (water-cooler type) which we used for cooking and drinking.

But that's a gas why does it matter?

> But that's a gas why does it matter?

You're thinking of Radon, which is a decay product of Radium (which is a metal).

Radium is soluble in water, and similar enough to calcium that it's absorbed into bones where it releases alpha particles that will cause cancer in high enough doses.

[1] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radon

[2] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radium#Chemical_characteristics...

[3] - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16839204

Gas can be dissolved in water. That's what Coca-Cola is made with.

I think that standard procedure is to store 1 gallon of water.

Living in a 750 sq ft apartment, 40 gallons of water would occupy a significant amount of space.

About 4 square feet?

About half a square foot would presumably suffice, assuming an eight foot ceiling.

I think the standard trick is to use the water in the hot water heater. not everybody has one, of course, but they are really common.

I haven't had to use the heater trick, but a few months ago while the water was out in my building and I woke up incredibly thirsty, I did realize that I could scoop the ice out of the icetray in my freezer (it has an icemaker, so there is always ice in it), microwave it to melt it, then drink it.

I don't store any water nor do I know anyone who does, sadly... I just figure I'd buy some from a local store, or get it from a well if somewhere country side.

Obviously in this situation it's hard to do either - I hope they find a way to solve this quickly...

I keep meaning to put together a website that lists the best items to buy to lower general risk.

I think a few large jugs of water is likely the top item on that list for any home, anywhere.

The problem is that an easy to manage store is not really big enough to do anything other than increase comfort (there are edge cases where people need to be more careful but hopefully they aren't getting a reminder of that from a website).

You can also just buy a few LifeStraws (assuming you aren't in a desert climate). They're super handy while hiking anyway.


edit: My thinking was that you could use any other freshwater supply nearby. Not that you should use a contaminated supply. This is more practical for me than storing 40 gallons of emergency water in my home.

LifeStraws seem designed to filter biological, not chemical contaminants.

"filters to 0.2 microns through the use of hollow-fiber membranes" "Does not filter chemicals, salt, viruses, heavy metals, taste"

Any action from FEMA or any govt agency? I would hope they would be bringing in and rationing drinking water.

This looks like a major disaster from what I understand, and the situation has the potential to deteriorate rather quickly.

"FEMA said Friday that 75 trucks -- each carrying 18,500 liters of water -- were expected to begin arriving in Charleston by early evening."


Don't forget, thanks to state rights, they have to be invited in.

And this is bad why exactly?

Well for one, I could have sworn these were United States and one country. State rights makes it so they don't operate that way and the Federal Government of the people, by the people and for the people can't help the people without a request from another source in the same way they would offer aid to a foreign nation.

This of course never leads to governments using this to play politics to be able to blame the Federal Government to make themselves look better, or the Federal Government look bad. No that would never happen.

That's because they are United States who will offer each other aid, but also maintain some sovereignty.

Do tell, how much does the average person in Austin, Texas have in common with somebody in Salt Lake City, Utah? How much do those people have in common with the average person in Oakland?

States rights make it so that each state can dictate policy best suited and tuned for its own population--and so that it can be held more directly responsible by its populace.

If you pull your head out of your ass, you'll see Americans aren't all that different and they need all the same aid as each other in a disaster. Hell, American's aren't all that different than Canadians, but apparently you believe people are different species because they live one one side of an imaginary line or another.

The federal government isn't going to be dictating people in Austin all wear winter coats because it gets cold in Jeuno. But they are hindered in their ability to render aid to the very people they govern because each state acts like its own little country.

Austin's population generally do see themselves as having a lot in common with other major urban areas, like San Francisco or Boston. Austonians by and large do not like the policies that the state they happen to be ensconced within enacts. Texas is generally right-leaning, but Austin is pretty liberal, and would choose very different policies if they had the power to do so.

That indicates one issue with splitting political power into states: most American political differences are urban/suburban/rural, not regional. Austonians and San Franciscans have more in common with each other than they do with other areas of their own states, and California's Central Valley would get along fine with West Texas. But SF and the Central Valley don't get along, and West Texas and Austin don't get along.

One thing they have in common is they all use water.

As I happen to live in Oakland, I consider myself to have a great deal in common with people in the other places you mention. Sure, I have quite different political and religious views from the stereotypical resident of those places, but what we have in common outweighs that by far - about the same physical needs, vulnerabilities, degree of caring about family members etc. In any kind of disaster situation the basic needs of food, shelter, warmth, medical care, communications and so on vary little.

Do tell, how much does the average person in Austin, Texas have in common with somebody in Salt Lake City, Utah? How much do those people have in common with the average person in Oakland?

Well, they have a very similar need for clean water and unless chemistry varies wildly across state lines, some sort of coordinated response would seem sensible.

Not to mention that the chemicals could flow downstream into a larger water system. In this case the Ohio River. Multi-state hairball.

I could be bad if the state doesn't really have the best interest of its people as the top item on their agenda.

I would think that would be pretty obvious...

And what makes you think that that is the top item in the agenda of the federal government?

Did I say it is? I said it could be.

And given the influence of mining companies in the region, I say there is a high probability that is the case.

FEMA tends to respond in varying degrees to most disasters, following a suitable declaration of a state of emergency. It's a federal agency, with a very specific role, so not being the "top item" for the federal government is just a weak rhetorical argument.

Interesting. That is kind of dangerous. In a way corrupt politicians who are in bed with mining companies will probably try to delay or minimize exposure as much as possible and only act until it is too late. By that point a lot more people would be exposed to these chemicals.

I also understand people mostly accept and support mining, as it is seen as the only real economic driver in the state. This might change that perspective, depending on how it is handled.

Fortunately, in this case they acted quickly, FEMA's already shipping water, and they're mobilizing the National Guard...

A gov't agency, which I'm not sure, ordered the plant operator to cease operations earlier today.

Another Charleston native here, I think you're spot on. 300,000+ people are without water, yet the media's focus is still on the drama surrounding Chris Christie's traffic jam.

I'm also from Charleston and spent two summers painting the very tanks that are the source of this mess. The plant previously belonged to Pennzoil and was ancient when I was there as a HS student in the 70s. The place, IMO, was a leak waiting to happen just out of sheer age.

The media is a bit obsessed with the Governor of New Jersey right now. I did hear about the spill this AM on the car radio. I live in Washington DC. How far is the nearest "water distribution center" from you?

If this goes on for more than a few weeks, it's going to put every single restaurant out of business. And god knows what else.

Native West Virginian here. We have kind of a strange situation in that we are rather right-leaning politically and so many people are employed by coal and energy companies that anything that comes across as "environmentalist" is met with hostility by the general public, even though we are too often the victims of horrendous incidents such as this, as well as highly questionable business practices like fracking, mountain top removal, etc. Just Massey Energy's track record alone is pretty disturbing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massey_Energy#Environmental_re...

And in recent memory, the Chesapeake incidents:


I think a lot of people have essentially accepted things the way they are now and aren't willing to rock the boat. There are a handful of documentaries that come to mind- namely The Last Mountain, Coal Country, and Coal Rush- that are pretty difficult to watch, but I think if more people in our area saw the effects of our beloved industry they might see things differently. However, I think most end up turning a blind eye to it out of fear of unemployment.

An environmental disaster like this is tragic, but in a way it's better when it happens in a publicly visible way like this instead of silently poisoning thousands of people over many years. Events like this are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the externalized costs of coal. A Harvard study estimated that coal mining and use inflicts a public health burden to the Appalachian region of roughly $75 billion per year: http://solar.gwu.edu/index_files/Resources_files/epstein_ful... (page 91). That's more than the entire GDP of West Virginia.

If boiling and filtering is impossible to clean, well that means their water table is screwed for decades, no?

Pretty much abandon the area or risk cancer.

"Freedom Industries" indeed.

It completely depends on the type of chemical. Your scenario imagines something like radiation. Perhaps the chemical isn't incredibly toxic and can be flushed out. If someone spilled bleach you wouldn't be able to boil or filter it out but you could dilute it to where it's safe for consumption.

City of St Albans water, mentioned in the story as safe, appears do be drawn from the Kanawha, downstream of where the Elk River flows in.

So yeah, dilution appears to be the solution (really, the problem seems to be that one treatment plant drew in a large quantity of contaminated water).

That was my first thought too. According to http://www.reddit.com/r/chemistry/comments/1uunyw/4methylcyc... however: "The material is lighter than water, so it's going to float on top."

It's water soluble- this chemical cannot simple be skimmed from the surface like an oil.

Actually, it's not very water soluble at all. It's a large cyclohexane that's relatively non-polar (the first comment in that reddit link agrees). Approximately 5000 gallons of the chemical spilled into the river, so there likely isn't very much of the chemical mixed in with the water. Most likely not enough to seriously harm anyone.

It's not insoluble, it is up to 3% soluble. "Most likely not enough to harm anyone." For some reason the state has declared it a federal disaster? check out this green ice- look, it's not soluble! Fine to drink! http://i.imgur.com/pzBsLRP.jpg

Its solubility maxes out at 3%. ~5000 gallons in a river is hardly enough to get to those levels. The news is reporting that the concentration is about 3ppm. 3ppm of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is about 0.021g of the chemical in 1L of water. The lowest LD50 for ingesting the chemical I've found is 800mg/kg. This means you'd have to drink 3086L of water for it to be lethal. The LD50 for skin contact is at least double the ingestion LD50.

That being said, I'm not going to take the risk, and I've only used water out of water bottles since this started.

Sghodas- I think you are missing the point. By your math and 'rational' it seems there shouldn't be an issue. This spill was not some homogeneous mixture you can easily calculate in PPM. This chemical has travelled wholly through the water plant into the water supply- solubility doesn't matter. Two to seven days have elapsed between intake from river, through filtration/ozone treatment, to holding water tower, then into public use. How many PPM do you think are in the green ice cubes someone found in their freezer? And at what PPM does ingestion cause long-term health effects?

LD50 is fairly useless as it gives no indication of the toxicity of lower levels of the substance. It takes a large volume for some chemicals to kill you, but a much smaller amount can make your life very unpleasant.

The NIH has much more information about methylcyclohexanol here: http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@ter...

Edit -*

The NIH link is to a 4-methylcyclohexanol (CAS: 589-91-3), not to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (CAS: 34885-03-5), a similar but distinct compound.

methylcyclohexanol and 4-methylcyclohexane methanol are different compounds.

That damn extra carbon.

Any idea why the Wiki article gets the oxygen / hydrogen counts wrong?


As of this revision it matches what I see elsewhere:


Presumably whoever created the page copied the info box and forgot to edit it.

That's a good point. It doesn't appear to be particularly dangerous at low levels - just unpleasant.

5000 gallons? That's not much, in the context of a river. I'd guess this won't turn out to be a long term big deal.

I grew up in WV. My parents are still there. Montani Semper Liberi

I wanted to provide some information about the chemical that was spilled, which is being reported to be 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol.

You may see it referred to in its shortened form as MCHM.

This chemical is used in a purification process called froth flotation. [1] In the case of WV, it is used in coal purification.

OSHA guidelines list this chemical as hazardous. It is harmful if swallowed, and causes skin and eye irritation. At elevated temperatures, vapor may cause irritation of eyes and respiratory tract. [2]

If you are familiar with the so-called fire diamond or NFPA 704 [3][4], this chemical is listed as:

Instability/Reactivity (Yellow) 0:

Materials which in themselves are normally stable, even under fire exposure conditions, and which are not reactive with water.

Flammability (Red) 1:

Materials that must be pre-heated before ignition can occur.

Health (Blue) 2:

Materials which on intense or continued exposure could cause temporary incapacitation or possible residual injury unless prompt medical treatment is given.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Froth_flotation

[2] http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/wvpn/files/201401/MSD...

[3] https://www.google.com/search?q=nfpa+704+fire+diamond&tbm=is...

[4] http://www.milwaukee.gov/ImageLibrary/User/dnscms/pdf/broc/h...

This is all over the local news here.

Coincidentally, I was just listening to some talk about alternative energy [0] with some interesting arguments for solar and hydro power over coal.

Makes me wonder if we've become inured to the environmental cost/risk of coal power and processing?

Also, coal is big part of the WV economy [1]. So this would seem to have the potential for an extended impact.

First with the water problems. Second in any backlash that arises against the industry in response to the spill.

0: http://www.fiatlux.fm/pragmatic/2

1: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_West_Virginia#Coal

We've been inured to the environmental cost of coal since roughly forever. Coal is horrendous, but it's cheap and plentiful and heavily used so everybody just kind of averts their eyes.

I imagine you're familiar with the recommendation that children and pregnant women should limit their fish intake, due to mercury present in seafood. The largest part of that mercury comes from emissions from burning coal.

Similarly, there is much more worry about the safety of nuclear power than coal power. But guess which one emits more radioactivity into the environment? You guessed it: coal. I believe this is true even if you account for nuclear accidents, although I admit that I'm going by memory on this one.

Coal accounts for something like a million deaths a year worldwide. That's a significant chunk of overall human mortality. Coal kills more people each year than nukes have ever killed, even if you count the atomic bombs.

I didn't even know that coal needs to be treated with dangerous chemicals - add that to the list of problems with coal power...

Coal processing also involves leaving giant reservoirs of fly ash, which can lead to incidents such as this: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/27/us/27sludge.html?_r=0

Not to mention mountain top removal mining, or any other destructive practices considered A-OK in the industry.

Well it doesn't strictly have to be treated, it's an attempt to make it "cleaner." Unintended consequences and all that.

I lived in WV for a while. A friend of mine who still lives there posted this on her Facebook feed: green ice from the water -- http://i.imgur.com/pzBsLRP.jpg

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