Environment
6:00 pm
Mon January 13, 2014

In Kentucky, No Immediate Danger From West Virginia Chemical Spill, But Could it Happen Here?

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The plume of a hazardous chemical from a spill that contaminated the water for 9 counties in West Virginia has made it to the Ohio River. But the Louisville Water Company says the chemical doesn’t pose a danger to the region’s drinking water.

Last week, a company in Charleston, West Virginia, reported a leak of a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or “crude MCHM” into a river that supplied drinking water to the area. Since then, the nine West Virginia counties have been without water for drinking and washing, though service is slowly being restored.

Now, the plume of crude MCHM is making its way down the Ohio River, and a small amount (0.023 parts per million) has been detected in Ashland. Louisville Water Company spokeswoman Kelley Dearing Smith said the water company has been working with the Ohio River Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) to track and measure the chemical.

“At this point, if the chemical made it into the Louisville part of the Ohio River, it would probably be Friday morning,” she said. “And I say ‘if,’ because we don’t know at this point how low those levels might be. At this point, we do not believe this is a concern for our customers at all.”

That’s because the Ohio River is huge—about 75 billion gallons of water go by Louisville every day, and will likely dilute the chemical. But Dearing Smith says if it’s still detectable when it reaches the area, the water company has filtration technology to deal with it.

So, that’s the immediate impact of the West Virginia spill on Kentucky, but the question remains: could something similar happen here? And the short answer is yes.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bruce Scott says what happened in West Virginia seems to be a perfect storm of factors that went wrong. But: “could it happen again somewhere else?” he asked. “Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes. It’s something that we all have to be vigilant in ensuring that we have all the proactive precautionary measures we can think of in place to prevent those things.”

In both Kentucky and West Virginia, facilities like this one are required to have a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, which requires them to have a Best Management Practice Plan, and has to ensure than any accidental releases be contained. Kentucky also has a Groundwater Protection Plan program, which requires storage tanks and drums to be stored on something impermeable like concrete, with an extra way to contain any spills.

If a spill does happen, public drinking water facilities using surface water (like rivers) are required to have carbon treatment available that absorbs organic material.

But here’s one tricky thing about MCHM: it kind of falls into a weird middle gray area, and into some regulatory gaps. It’s not a substance that’s so toxic it’s regulated under the federal CERCLA or Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) laws, unless it’s stored in enormous quantities. But it’s a chemical that can still cause widespread problems if it’s released into a drinking water system.

As Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward notes in his coverage of the West Virginia spill, the accident could push reforms to the federal Toxic Substances Control Act to the forefront.

The idea is to, for the first time, require the EPA to review the safety of all chemicals used in commerce. The EPA has tested only about 200 of the 84,000 chemicals in the agency's inventory.

For the current water crisis, TSCA reform is an important issue. The chemical involved "Crude MCHM" has been the subject of very limited testing, and even experts say they don't know much about its potential health effects.

Writing on his group's Internet blog, Environmental Defense Fund senior scientist Richard Denison explained Saturday that, while accidents happen, the West Virginia water crisis “is compounded by the fact that much of the impact of this spill could have been avoided had basic safety information on this chemical been available.”

In Kentucky, Bruce Scott said he has no knowledge of any facility storing large quantities of MCHM—the chemical is used in coal washing, and he said his understanding is that Kentucky companies buy small amounts from this West Virginia facility. But there are other chemicals here. And Scott acknowledged that his department’s recent budget cuts—with more on the horizon—means that actual inspections of some of these facilities aren’t always very frequent.

“In terms of actual out-in-the-field inspection, it’s true of most of the facilities we have, the frequency of inspection is not going to be at a frequency that we’re going to be able to find every little thing that might come up,” he said. “And that’s true of any program.”

Here's a fact sheet from the Kentucky DEP on the West Virginia spill's affect on Kentucky:

Questions Related to West Virginia Chemical Spill A