The West Virginia chemical spill that has left 300,000 West Virginians without water has revealed serious gaps in regulation and poor oversight. Approximately 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) leaked into Elk River from a one-inch hole in a 48,000 gallon tank, leading to a state of emergency last week. The tank was located in a storage facility owned by Freedom Industries, and was “subject to almost no state and local monitoring” the Wall Street Journal reports. According to WSJ, a state regulator stated that environmental inspectors had not been to the spill site since 1991.State authorities did find an inspection report from 2002, which identified the leaked tank as a potential threat. However, the ownership of the site and tank had changed since then and the state was hardly regulating the site since it was mostly used for storage.
Clearly, the regulatory slack has had consequences. In the 23-years since an inspector had been on-site, a hole could certainly have developed unnoticed in the tank. A large part of the problem is that this situation appears to fall in an in-between place when it comes to regulatory authorities. The Environmental Protection Agency typically does not regulate above-ground chemical storage facilities. Even though the agency does require spill-prevention plans for plants that discharge chemicals into water, the Freedom Industries tank was not included in this requirement because it was a used as a storage facility. MCHM, a chemical whose effects on health haven’t truly been studied, was not among the substances that trigger a notification to the federal government.
There were some regulations put into place that Freedom Industries appears not to have followed. The state of West Virginia requires such companies to have a spillover containment area along with a groundwater protection plan. Freedom reportedly had not provided a plan to the state Department of Environmental Protection. One of the few mandates was met a year ago, when Freedom gave the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management a list of chemicals with “immediate (acute) hazards.” MCHM was on this list, but it is not clear if anything useful was ever done with the information.
Residents in West Virginia were without tap water for five days. Last week, the office of the Governor of West Virginia told residents not to consume, bathe or wash clothes in the contaminated water. About a dozen people have been hospitalized.