I lived in the heart of the Kanawha Valley a/k/a "The Chemical Valley" for twelve years before leaving in 2009. Having a degree in chemistry, it amazed and perplexed me that chemical plants and storage tanks were permitted to operate in the midst of such a populated area, directly on the banks of rivers which provided drinking water to hundreds of thousands. I would see these facilities and wonder what chemicals were stored there and if anyone was really paying attention to what chemicals were where. Was anyone paying attention to how the chemicals interacted with one another if there was a system failure or accident and the chemicals came in contact with one another? Was anyone paying attention to whether the storage tanks were sufficient to withstand potential interactions with and among chemicals they were holding? Did anyone know what would happen in the event of a leak? Did anyone know the effects of human exposure to these chemicals? Were there mechanisms in place to protect the drinking water? When I would voice these concerns, my friend and colleagues would act like I was crazy. They, of course, assumed the answer to all of these questions was a resounding "yes". They trusted the "good corporate citizens" and the governmental regulators. Many thought these companies were overregulated. The events which began at Freedom Industries on January 9, 2014 proved their trust was misplaced and have forever changed the lives of the hundreds of thousands of West Virginians who have been exposed to both known and unknown chemicals and chemical combinations.
Much has already been said about Freedom Industries' blatant disregard for the citizens of West Virginia when it failed to even report that the toxic chemical, Crude MCHM, had leaked into the Elk River just above the main water system intake station. It took hours for a "do not use" order to be issued and countless men, women and children ingested water contaminated with this toxic chemical in the interim. But what else were they exposed to? We just don't know and we may never fully know.
Twelve days after the spill, Freedom Industries disclosed that a second chemical, identified as "PPH, stripped" also leaked from the storage tanks. Like Crude MCHM, little is known about PPH, stripped, or its effect on humans. Unlike Crude MCHM, which avoided many chemical industry disclosure requirements through a regulatory "grandfathering" loophole, information regarding PPH, stripped, has been withheld from public disclosure as "proprietary" information. After learning that Freedom Industries had not immediately disclosed the involvement of PPH, stripped, in the spill, the West Virginia DEP ordered Freedom Industries to disclose all materials spilled. Freedom Industries claims only Crude MCHM and PPH, stripped, were involved. Given Freedom Industries' recent history, it would be reasonable to question the veracity of this statement. The failure of Freedom Industries to immediately disclose all involved chemicals and the failure of governmental authorities to demand full and immediate disclosure has further jeopardized the health and safety of West Virginians because it has hindered the ability to effectively attempt to remediate the spill and minimize its consequences.
It is basic science. Chemicals can interact with one another. Consider this hypothetical. Chemical A and Chemical B leak from an aging storage tank. A is non-toxic and does not have adverse human health effects upon exposure in its native state. B causes flu-like symptoms if ingested by humans in quantities of 10 ppm. A & B are friendly compounds that do not interact with one another. Chemical C interacts with B to transform it to chemical D which has no adverse health or safety effects. However, chemical C reacts with chemical A to form the highly toxic, colorless and odorless chemical E - a substance that when ingested by humans is known to cause cancer in quantities as low as 0.0001 ppm. Unaware that chemical A is present, those responding to the spill utilize C to neutralize B and unknowingly create E which goes undetected until it is disclosed that A was present all along. The failure to immediately disclose the presence of A resulted in humans being exposed to an even worse substance at toxic levels.
This completely hypothetical scenario is utilized to make a point. I do not know enough about Crude MCHM or PPH, stripped, to even begin to consider how they interact with other substances. One question that needs to be answered, and should have been answered immediately upon learning that the spill had entered the drinking water supply, is does Crude MCHM or PPH, stripped, interact or oxidize with chlorine - the main substance used to sanitize drinking waters supplies? If so, what chemicals are formed and what effect do they have on humans?
Although the Material Data Sheet for Crude MCHM, indicates that it is harmful if swallowed and causes skin and eye irritation, it tells us little else about the chemical. In fact, it uses the phrase "no data available" 152 times, including when providing information regarding repeated dose toxicity, carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity and specific organ toxicity. While government officials have declared that 1 ppm is an "acceptable" level of MCHM in drinking water,pregnant women are advised not to consume it at all and find alternative sources of water. Pediatricians have advised not to allow children to consume the substance. How did the government officials come up with these numbers? Through extrapolation and speculation, as no data or studies exist regarding the effects of these chemicals or safe levels of consumption. Unfortunately, the citizens of the Kanawha Valley have become test subjects who will live with the consequences of this spill for the remainder of their lives as a result of the negligence and arrogance of Freedom Industries and the failure of government officials to confirm the integrity of the storage tanks (the tanks at issue had not been inspected since 1991 and photos reveal extensive exterior deterioration!).
People who were exposed to the MCMH and PPH, stripped, will need to disclose that fact to health providers for the rest of their lives and should be keeping a record of any unusual symptoms or conditions they experience. There is apparently no information regarding disease latency periods arising from exposure to the chemicals spilled. Add in the fact that we have no information regarding how these substances are interacting with other substances present in the air and water or being used to treat the spill, and the result is that the citizens of the Kanawha Valley may be living in a giant toxic soup. A condition arising 30 years from now may ultimately be traced back to this event and resulting exposure. Epidemiologists will be studying the health effects of this spill for decades. Scientists will be studying the chemical interactions and effect on the environment for years to come. Oh yes, the environment. No one is talking yet about the consequences of this spill on the fish, wildlife and vegetation. The arrogance and greed of the chemical and coal industry coupled with the government's lack of regulation in the hopes of increasing tax dollars has resulted in a giant toxicity experiment with the citizens of West Virginia as the test subjects.
The twelve years I spent in Charleston were spent defending corporations or working in government. Although I had and still have many wonderful friends and colleagues there, I was never comfortable in Charleston not only because of my real fear of the chemical plants but also because I felt I should be doing something else with my life. My chemistry background actually led me to the legal field. I did not want to work with these toxic substances on a daily basis but I knew the effects these substances could have on people and the environment and knew someone had to keep the corporations in check. I initially intended to practice environmental law but life events led me on a different path. Joining Bordas & Bordas in 2009 has enabled me to stand up to the bad corporate citizens on behalf of those who have been harmed as a result of corporate greed and arrogance. I only wish my friends and former colleagues were not now dealing with the effects of Freedom Industries' arrogance and the lack of appropriate governmental regulation of the chemical industry in the Kanawha Valley.