The West Virginia chemical spill is just one example of a much bigger problem

Image: West Virginians line up at a water filling station at West Virginia State University. A chemical spill prevents them from using tap water. REUTERS/Lisa Hechesky

Over the weekend, Xeni wrote here about a chemical spill in West Virginia that's dumped upwards of 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into the Elk River just a mile upstream from the West Virginia American Water intake system, contaminating local water supplies. Since she posted, there have been some more updates on this story, including some interesting chemical sleuthing from a couple of great writers.

First off, what is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol? It's used in coal washing, a process that it would be reasonable to think of as "a good thing", because washing coal is what removes a lot of the sulfur that would otherwise contribute to acid rain. Basically, while we'd all prefer we didn't burn coal, if we're going to burn it, we want it to be washed. To do that, coal is crushed fine and dumped into a bath of frothy, foamy water. Relatively light coal floats and sticks to the foam. Relatively heavy sulfurous rock sinks. 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is one of the chemicals that can be used to make the froth.

This could explain why there hasn't yet been any news of major fish kills associated with the spill, writes hydrologist Anne Jefferson at the Highly Allochthonous blog. This stuff is chosen for the job it's meant to do because it's light and floats on water. Meanwhile, because it's winter, most of the fish are hanging out deeper in the water.

But that doesn't mean it's safe and everything is cool. In fact, the big problem with 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is that there doesn't seem to be a well-documented safety profile on it, one way or the other. Deborah Blum, a journalist and author who writes extensively about chemicals, poisons, and toxicology, tried to track down the safety data on 4-methylcyclohexane methanol and had a damn hard time doing so.

At this point, another source – yes, I was making a complete pest of myself — sent me a copy of a 2011 Material Safety Data Sheet. “Caution,” it said. “Product can cause skin and eye irritation. Vapors, especially upon heating, can cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract.” The safety data sheet was strong on not inhaling the compound – which could cause headaches, breathing difficulty and nausea – and on wearing protective gear in case of an accident.

But here was what caught my attention:

Exposure guidelines: None established for products or components

Decomposition: Unavailable

Ecological information: There is no data available for the product

The real problem here, Blum points out, is much bigger than this one spill. It's the fact that we continue to use many industrial solvents without knowing much (if anything) about what their risks really are and what levels of exposure are safe. Nobody has invested the time or money into learning what should be vital information. (This is where I'd also like to take a moment to suggest that you go read Dan Fagin's book Tom's River. It's about the social, psychological, and health effects of the sort of intentional chemical dumping that happened with abandon throughout much of the 20th century. It will give you a really good idea of why it's important to know more about these chemicals ahead of time. Establishing what the health risks are after the dumping has already occurred turns out to be nigh on impossible, especially if the risks are long-term things like cancer, rather than short-term things like, say, skin rashes.)

Meanwhile, it's becoming clear that the spill also has connections to major lapses in regulatory oversight. As Ana Marie Cox writes in The Guardian, this spill should be a much bigger political deal than Bridgegate.

Notable Replies

  1. Salgak says:

    Honestly ?? The lack of breakdown and dosage, much less LD50 data on the stuff is likely considered to be a feature, not a bug. With no dosage or LD50 documented, one must ESTABLISH such measures before trying to sue the chemical manufacturer for anything more than unlicensed dumping and simple negligence.

    And the latter assumes that it was due to actual negligence: I've seen no reporting on how that tank rupture actually occured. I'm sure the company would love to find a tree or something that hit the tank, causing the rupture. . .

  2. Even if the tank rupture were some sort of highly-unlikely-accident, reports are that the spill happened when the fluid overran the secondary containment wall that was supposed to catch spills from the tank.

    In 'we actually give a fuck' land, you build spill containment with volume greater than the potential spill, so that that doesn't happen. Those crazy 'sensors' and 'sending the intern out to look for giant chemical puddles that shouldn't be there' techniques can also be used.

  3. In some domains, like aerospace and medicine, It's supposed to be, "Prove it's safe before you deploy". Everyplace else it seems, the burden of proof is on those who think it might be dangerous. But nothing should get in the way of making a dollar.

  4. gmoke says:

    Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University was on Al Jazeera America this afternoon and mentioned that there are something like 80,000 to 100,000 industrial chemicals in use that haven't been tested for human or ecological damage. And few or none of the chemicals in use that have been tested have been tested in combination even with previously tested chemicals. We continue to run a totally uncontrolled experiment on our bodies and our world. What could go wrong?

  5. I'm not sure if I understand why the company responsible for the spill isn't driving door to door delivering water. That seems like a reasonable response to me.

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