May 14 11:07 AM

4 months after the West Virginia chemical spill, 6 things to know

On Saturday, May 17, 2014, at 7:00p ET, Fault Lines' latest epsiode, "Water for Coal," premieres on Al Jazeera America.

Fault Lines traveled to West Virginia after January’s chemical spill to examine whether one industry’s hold on the state made this crisis inevitable. 

Before tuning-in, catch up by reviewing some facts and figures regarding the chemical spill that led to a state of emergency being declared in the state. 

Wilson Dizard/Al Jazeera

1. On Jan. 9, 2014, a chemical spill of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) left 300,000 West Virginians without water for days.

About 300,000 people in nine counties entered their third day Saturday without being able to drink, bathe in, or wash dishes or clothes with their tap water after a foaming agent escaped a chemical tank belonging to Freedom Industries – a Charleston company that produces specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries – and seeped into the Elk River. The only allowed use of the water was for flushing toilets.

Four hospitalized in West Virginia chemical spill, Al Jazeera America, January 11, 2014.

2. MCHM is a compound used to wash coal.

4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is a compound used to wash coal of impurities. It is known to pose a significant danger to humans in close contact. Short-term exposure can affect breathing, irritate the skin and eyes and cause skin rashes, and inhalation of the compound can damage vital organs and even prove fatal. 

West Virginia chemical spill declared federal disaster, Al Jazeera America, January 9, 2014.

3. The economic impact of the spill is estimated to be about $61 million.

The economic impact of the Jan. 9 chemical spill that contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people is $61 million, according to a preliminary study.

The Marshall University Center for Business and Economic Research conducted a preliminary investigation, which looked at establishments such as schools, medical offices, restaurants, hotels and some retail stores that needed clean water to provide service.

The CBER estimates the initial impact to be slightly more than $19 million for each business day during the "Do Not Use" water order issued for nine counties.

- Chem spill economic impact is $61 million, study says, The Charleston Gazette, February 4, 2014.

4. Each year the coal industry provides tens of thousands of West Virginian residents with jobs, supporting the state economy and providing power to millions of Americans.

The coal industry, however, says it’s the victim of overregulation and that it can’t be blamed for problems with the state’s water wells.

“It’s just ridiculous to make such an allegation,” said Bill Raneypresident of the West Virginia Coal Association, an industry group.

Although the chemical that spilled Thursday is used in the processing of raw coal, he said that the two were unrelated.

“It has nothing to do with the mining industry. It happens to be a chemical that’s used in part of the mining process, but it has a lot of other purposes, including the purification of water.”

Raney said that the industry complies or even “overcomplies” with the demands of government regulators and that tens of thousands of jobs in the state rely on mining and processing coal.

“There are about 20,000 jobs that pay $60,000 to $70,000 a year, letting many families pay for college educations for their children. The best coal miners in the world live right here in West Virginia,” he said. “Coal still generates the majority of energy in America so everyone enjoys a very low-cost source of electricity.”

Coal mining’s long legacy of water pollution in West Virginia, Al Jazeera America, January 13, 2014.

5. Some experts believe coal mining affected West Virginia's water supply years before the Jan. 9 spill—and that the economic benefits of coal mining aren't worth jeopardizing the state's water supply.

The disastrous impact of mining on West Virginia’s water resources goes back generations and could soon render much of the state’s water undrinkable, activists and experts say.

Officials on Monday started lifting the ban on tap water prompted by last week's chemical spill in the Elk River. About 300,000 people in nine counties have been unable to use their water other than to flush toilets for the past five days.

Experts, however, say the problem goes much deeper, and that coal mining made many wells and streams useless years ago.


Environmentalists say the economic benefits of coal aren’t worth it if the state’s water remains undrinkable. 

Coal mining’s long legacy of water pollution in West Virginia, Al Jazeera America, January 13, 2014

6. 5 - 6 weeks after the initial spill, traces of MCHM were found in 10 of 10 homes tested.

An independent scientific team found low levels of the primary chemical from January's Elk River leak in all 10 homes it tested in a pilot project funded by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in response to public pressure for more answers about the potential impact of the incident that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 residents across the region.

Members of the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, or WVTAP, found no concentrations of 4-MCHM greater than 6.1 parts per billion, and most of the homes had levels that were less than 2.2 parts per billion. The average among the homes tested was 1.48 parts per billion.

Contamination levels were well below the short-term, emergency guidelines -- 1 part per million from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 10 parts per billion from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration -- that federal and state officials have said they believe would not cause any adverse health effects.

MCHM found in all 10 homes tested, Ken Ward Jr. for The Charleston Gazette, March 28, 2014.

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For more coverage on the coal industry in West Virginia, water contamination, and the Elk River MCHM spill, watch Fault Lines' latest episode,"Water for Coal", premiering Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 7:00p ET/ 4:00 pm PT.


West Virginia
EPA, Mining, Water

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