Freedom Industries on the banks of the Elk River is seen Friday in Charleston, W.Va. West Virginia American Water determined Thursday MCHM chemical had "overwhelmed" the plant's capacity to keep it out of the water from a spill at Freedom Industries in Charleston. An unknown amount of the hazardous chemical contaminated the public water system for potentially 300,000 people in West Virginia.
By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The hazardous chemical that spilled into the Elk River near Charleston, W.Va., is a sudsing agent used to wash fine dust from coal in some of West Virginia's mines, according to environmental officials.
The chemical, known as methylcyclohexanol, can irritate the eyes, skin, throat and respiratory tract, and can cause a skin rash, according to the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. High exposure from skin contact, inhalation or ingestion may cause damage to the heart, liver, kidneys and lungs, and may result in death, according to the institutes' data.
Due to the vast number of chemicals used in American industry, Pennsylvania and federal environmental officials do not regulate storage and use of methylcyclohexanol beyond the usual requirements for any chemical or petroleum product stored in a tank, according to John Poister, spokesman for the southwest regional office of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
"When you deal in the realm of chemicals, there are thousands and thousands of chemicals, with more released nearly every day," he said. "We don't necessarily track every chemical and this is one we don't track."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate the chemical's use as part of its toxic release inventory, which lists the many thousands of chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects or other serious harm.
If storing chemicals in a tank in Pennsylvania, companies must write plans for preventing, containing and cleaning up spills, and properly maintain a containment area around the tank. That containment area must be cleaned of rainwater or snowmelt daily to prevent a breach in case of a spill, Mr. Poister said.
When inspecting storage tanks, tanker trucks or freight train tanks, the state's environmental regulators focus on the integrity of the tank rather than on making sure of its contents, he said.
"There's a feeling that the best we can do is to control the infrastructure because that's something we can actually see, and that helps us because that covers a lot of ground," Mr. Poister said.
The solvent, which the mining industry uses in a cleaning process called froth flotation, is not commonly used for that purpose in Pennsylvania, in part because it is very expensive, he said.
"In Pennsylvania, we have 16 coal-cleaning facilities and we don't believe too many of them use the froth flotation method," he said.
Washwater containing methylcyclohexanol is typically recycled and would not be discharged into waterways, Mr. Poister said. As a strong solvent, its presence in the river is almost certain to harm at least plant and animal life, although to what extent remains unknown, he said.
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1719.
Correction: An earlier version misstated the impact of the spill.
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