For over a week in the middle of last January Charleston, West Virginia and the surrounding communities were without drinking water due to contamination from a chemical leak. A former fuel storage tank that was being used to store MCHM had released about 10, 000 gallons of MCHM into the Elk River just a mile and a half up river from the water intake for the drinking water supply for Charleston. MCHM is 4-methylcyclohexylmethanol an alcohol with a licorice or mint smell at extremely low concentrations, and though there are limited studies, it is believed to have relatively low toxicity.
When the MCHM leak was first discovered the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, DEP, found the MCHM above ground storage tank with a hole in it sitting within an unlined concrete block containment dike. The MCHM leaked from the tank into an unlined cinderblock containment area and then into the ground through which it began leaching into the Elk River and flowing about a mile down to the Charleston West Virginia water intake for the American Water drinking water treatment plant. The drinking water plant is not designed to remove the chemical from river water, so the “finished” water had the tell tail smell. It is not reassuring to be told that it has low toxicity when you can smell chemical contamination in your drinking water.
During the cleanup by Freedom Industries, the owner of the storage tank facility, about 700 tons of Crude MCHM-mixed with wastewater and sawdust to solidify it was removed from the site. Contaminated soil was left in place. Freedom Industries brought the MCHM contaminated waste to a sanitary landfill in Hurricane West Virginia. The landfill was owned and operated by Waste Management. In February 2014, without notifying the town of Hurricane, the West Virginia DEP Division of Water and Waste Management approved a request for a “Minor Permit Modification” to allow Waste Management to accept the wastewater at their Hurricane landfill. The permit modification granted at the time would allow the landfill to accept the MCHM, water and sawdust mixture until October of 2014.
On March 12, 2014 Inspectors from the West Virginia DEP responded to “licorice” odor complaint at the landfill in Hurricane. According to the DEP it was determined that the odor was from the approved disposal of wastewater that was being transferred to the landfill. Putnam County and the city of Hurricane, West Virginia petitioned a Kanawha County circuit judge who granted a preliminary injunction blocking the DEP from allowing Waste Management to continue to dispose of the MCHM-sawdust mixture at the landfill. By the March 15th hearing, the West Virginia DEP had modified the permit once again so that the permission to accept the MCHM contaminated waste had expired.
By all accounts about 228 tons of MCHM, wastewater and sawdust mixture was buried at the Hurricane Landfill. Now Hurricane is suing Waste Management to remove the material from the landfill because they are concerned that the MCHM will leach out of the landfill into the landfill collectors that go to a waste water treatment plant that ultimately releases to a creek that feed the Kanawha River, the source of Hurricane’s drinking water supply. The waste water treatment plant is not designed to remove MCHM from the leachate. The rest of the 700 tons of MCHM contaminated material from the original Freedom Industries site was ultimately disposed of at a hazardous waste disposal well in Vickery, Ohio.
Waste Management wants the case dismissed on a technicality and because the MCHM sawdust mixture does not meet the definition of hazardous waste under the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the disposal was done under permit.
MCHM will continue to appear in the Charleston drinking water as it continues to leach into the Elk River from the contaminated soil that remains at that site. A month after the first incident in Charleston, MCHM was once more detected in the cities’ water supply and forced a closing of Charleston schools. Now Hurricane, West Virginia is waiting for MCHM to appear in their drinking water supply.
These rivers are the source of the drinking water supplies for over 300,000 people, old, young, healthy, sick, and pregnant- the entire spectrum. Now, there is the potential that both communities with have their drinking water impacted by chronic long term extremely low level exposure to MCHM for years. These were absolutely the wrong decisions. Public concern is very real, whether or not the MCHM mixture meets the definition of hazardous waste. That sawdust mixture should have been incinerated for a permanent solution and the tank or tanks should have been removed from the Freedom Industries site and along with all the contaminated soil to be remediated at a different site away from a drinking water supply. Moving contamination from one site to another is not remediation. Incineration, remediation or disposal at a hazardous waste disposal site would have been far more appropriate than using the town sanitary landfill. In the United States the purity of our public water supplies is sacred.