West Virginia Chemical-Spill Site Avoided Broad Regulatory Scrutiny

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Contamination Highlights Gaps in Regulations, Prompts Questions on Potential Threats.

The site of a West Virginia chemical spill that contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people operated largely outside government oversight, highlighting gaps in regulations and prompting questions on whether local communities have a firm grasp on potential threats to drinking water.

The storage facility owned by Freedom Industries Inc. on the banks of the Elk River was subject to almost no state and local monitoring, interviews and records show. The industrial chemical that leaked into the river, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, isn’t closely tracked by federal programs. Before last week’s spill, a state regulator said environmental inspectors hadn’t visited the site since 1991.

Residents and businesses in the state capital of Charleston and nine surrounding counties have been without water for drinking, bathing or other uses since Thursday, when an estimated 7,500 gallons of MCHM leaked from a one-inch hole in a tank at the Freedom site, breached a containment wall and seeped into the river. A strict water ban was expected to remain in place for the time being.

Incidents on this scale are rare, and MCHM didn’t appear to pose widespread immediate harm; about 10 people were hospitalized. But it showed that a little-known company could escape the notice of a host of oversight agencies and cause broad havoc.

Matthew Blackwood, chairman of a county-level group that develops local emergency-response plans, said Sunday the group didn’t know that stores of the chemical were sitting upriver from the area’s largest water-treatment plant.

“We definitely had not thought of water contamination on this scale,” he said Sunday. “I don’t want to overregulate private industry, but this does show that there are some chemicals that fall under the radar.”

He said his group, the Kanawha Putnam Emergency Planning Committee, works with major manufacturers—including DuPont & Co., Dow Chemical Co. and Bayer AG—in an area known locally as “Chemical Valley.” But most of the largest facilities operate downriver from the water plant.

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