On January 9, more than 300,000 West Virginia residents were shocked to learn that seemingly overnight their water was declared undrinkable, unusable even, save for flushing the toilet. In the ensuing weeks and months they would discover that a chemical mixture used to clean coal, crude MCHM, had leaked from a neglected storage tank on the banks of the Elk River, just upstream from a major water intake facility.
Despite its proximity to the drinking water supply, very little is known about crude MCHM and its potential impact on humans and the environment. Mixed messages regarding the safety of the water perpetuated the sense of fear among residents, a feeling that lingers nearly a year later, according to Evan Hansen, principal at the Morgantown-based environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies.
“I think there are still people in the area that are not drinking the water,” Hansen said. “It is still a concern for some people.”
The water disasters of 2014 both exposed additional threats to the nation’s water supply and have left significant unanswered questions about whether anything will be done to prevent these incidents, prolonged or acute, from happening again.