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Chemical spill must be a wake-up call

January 25, 2014
The Inter-Mountain

I strongly agree with your editorial concerning public water supply safety and security that was published in the Jan. 14 issue of The Inter-Mountain. The spill of chemicals from the Freedom Industries facility on the Elk River should be a wake-up call to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection as well as to managers of public water supplies throughout the state, including our own.

When questioned why the Freedom Industries facility had not been inspected by the State, WVDEP Secretary Huffman stated, "I think that the loophole that this facility fell into is because it (4-methyl cyclohexane methanol or MCHM) was not a hazardous material." In fact, it has since been revealed that little is known about the toxicity of the chemical, let alone whether it may cause cancer or birth defects.

The uncertainty on the latter point is underscored by the Federal Centers for Disease Control's recommendation that pregnant women should not drink water from the Elk River until MCHM is no longer detectable in the water supply in any amount.

The truth of the matter is that Secretary Huffman did not really know whether the material in question was hazardous or not, and this is equally true of hundreds of other chemicals that current regulations allow to be released into the waters of our state. It is poor public health practice to assume a chemical is not hazardous simply because you don't know much about it.

Whether a chemical is hazardous to humans or not is a consequence of many factors, including the nature of the chemical, its concentration, its interactions with other chemicals, the duration of the exposure, and the route by which exposure occurs.

The last point is particularly important in this case. Nearly any chemical introduced into a public water supply in any but the smallest amounts has the potential to cause harm, if not to the public health directly, then through economic damage to the communities that are served by a water supply that cannot be used. The economic losses to the people of the Kanawha Valley and indeed to the whole state of West Virginia from this latest incident must surely run into the tens of millions of dollars at the very least.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and our state Legislature must immediately take a fresh look at the rules, regulations, and practices that should be protecting the people of West Virginia from this sort of accident. It is only common sense to maintain close scrutiny over any facility that stores ten of thousands of gallons of potentially hazardous materials directly upstream of an intake for a public water supply upon which 300,000 people depend, and yet this was not done. It was not done by the WVDEP, or by Freedom Industries, or by the West Virginia American Water Company. It certainly represents a striking failure of both government and industry.

Like the Kanawha Valley, there are many West Virginia communities, our own included, that draw their water from rivers and streams whose watersheds are unprotected and largely unmonitored. Most people do not realize that public water treatment plants are primarily designed to remove agents that may cause human disease, and are not necessarily designed to remove harmful chemicals.

The best way to protect public water supplies from harmful chemicals is to protect the watersheds from which the water is drawn. West Virginia should require that public water supply managers maintain an active inventory of facilities within their watersheds that produce, store, or transport materials that might pose a threat to their water supplies. It should further require that the WVDEP regularly inspect any facilities that present such a threat.

The State Legislature should quickly act to pass legislation that gives the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and/or the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources the legislative authority they need to protect West Virginia's drinking water, not just in principle, but in fact.

James Van Gundy




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