Parachuted into Charleston, W.Va. last weekend to do a story on the chemical spill. Literally, I parachuted, it’s not a metaphor — tighter budgets in the newspaper industry mean we can only buy those discount airline tickets in which they drop you from a height as they’re flying somewhere else.
The situation in West Virginia seemed primed for a calamity. There’s a row of aging storage tanks full of chemicals just a little more than a mile upriver from the intake of the water supply run by West Virginia American Water Company. You don’t have to be the kind of worrywart who says “You could put an eye out with that” every time someone picks up a toothpick to realize that this invited calamity.
The chemical involved is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. I got grief on Twitter for saying that this was “hard to pronounce” (even though I quoted the cabinet secretary in charge of the environment saying “I can’t pronounce the chemical name”). I’m not a chemophobe, but this is at the very least a mouthful. It’s not like saying “ammonia.” It’s also an unfamiliar chemical. You ever heard of it? Me neither.
Although I hardly had an exhaustive examination of the area in my brief visit, one does note that it is heavily industrialized and the general design of the infrastructure seems optimized for industry more than it is for the human beings who live there.
The Kanawha is an industrialized river; George Washington, who used to own 17,000 acres along the banks downstream at the Ohio, was just a little ahead of his time. He never got a dime out of the property but now the river drains a good chunk of the coal industry and many chemical-producing facilities.
One thing I noticed in watching the briefings at the capital by the governor and other public officials is that in a crisis like this there’s a tendency of the authorities to use the words “process” and “protocol” a lot, and congratulate themselves on what a fine job they’re doing. The BP oil spill was like this — as if the overriding desire of the public is to be assured that the interagency cooperation on display has been splendid. No: People want to hear the words “It’s over.” And: “We fixed it.”
In West Virginia, it’s not over yet, but it’s getting there. There’s no high-tech solution. They’re just gradually flushing this chemical out of the water supply. Ultimately it all goes down the river and to the Ohio, but it’s water soluble and at some point it’s so dilute it’s not a problem (at least that’s my understanding). It doesn’t appear to be very toxic, either, but it has that “low odor threshold,” which means a little bit goes a long way in terms of announcing its presence.
Joel Achenbach writes for The Washington Post.