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Information Failure and the West Virginia Chemical Spill

by Travis Korte
The West Virginia Army Reserve during Operation Elk River

On January 9, 2014, up to 7,500 gallons of an industrial chemical used to clean impurities from coal spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, WV. The spill, which left 300,000 people without clean water and which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared a federal disaster the following day, arose not just from a leaky containment tank, but also from numerous information failures that better data policies could help address.

Immediately following the spill, local officials, containment crews, and the media alike lamented how little information on 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) was available. While the chemical’s manufacturer did have a federally-mandated “material safety data sheet” on MCHM, a great deal of useful information was missing; most notably, the only toxicity tests had been conducted on animals, so the spill’s potential harm to humans had to be crudely approximated. This led to the president of the local water treatment plant urging residents to use caution even days after the spill, saying that while he did not know that the water was unsafe, he could not confirm it was safe. Federal toxics databases, such as the National Library of Medicine’s TOXNET and the Center for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, are indispensable for getting chemical information to first responders during events like the Elk River spill; without adequate underlying data, however, they are not much help.

Uncertainty is exactly what families and local businesses do not want to hear in a crisis situation, and yet the problem of incomplete toxicology data affects tens of thousands of industrial chemicals. This is because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not apply the reporting and testing regulations mandated under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) to chemicals that were already on the market when the act took effect. Some 60,000 such substances were effectively “grandfathered” past the data-producing regulations, and there currently exists no mandatory program to determine the safety of these chemicals or make that information available publicly. Recent efforts to reform the TSCA and require systematic evaluations of the grandfathered chemicals, such as S. 1009, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013, could help ensure that sufficient information is available in the event of future disasters. Congress should support a bill to require full evaluations of chemicals that were grandfathered past TSCA regulations.

Other failures of information involved the facility itself. Because the plant was used primarily for storage rather than manufacturing, and because MCHM is not classified as acutely toxic, neither the EPA, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, nor the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regularly inspected the facility. Up-to-date data from regular inspections could be used to model equipment failure rates, as well as map active sites of hazardous material storage over a large area for regional planning and environmental protection purposes. As long as similar plants remain free from inspection, this data will not be available. Federal and state authorities should ensure that all facilities—including storage facilities—that work with hazardous chemicals be subject to regular inspection and reporting requirements.

Moreover, even data on the locations of plants that store MCHM is difficult to access and use, since chemical storage reporting in the State of West Virginia is conducted largely on paper. The West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which collects chemical disclosure filings, does not offer a publicly available online database, let alone a searchable one offering bulk downloads and machine-readable formats. Releasing data openly can improve government services and help crack down on fraud, waste, and abuse; without public access to data, states cannot glean these benefits. West Virginia and other states should mandate e-filing for chemical plant reports, make the data available freely online, and offer the data for bulk download in machine-readable formats.

In order to prevent disasters such as the Elk River spill, regulators at the state and federal levels must be aware of the landscape of available chemical and chemical facility information and understand whether this information would be sufficient in a crisis situation. This means ensuring that chemicals are properly evaluated, facilities are regularly inspected and data is offered to the public digitally. Better facilities data could have helped identify the at-risk plant, and better toxicology data could have aided recovery efforts. Without this data, another chemical spill in another state could spark a similar disaster.

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