“You never want to be in the position of performing a toxicity experiment like this on your own drinking water supply.”

Deborah Blum has a terrific story about the toxicity of MCHM, the chemical that Freedom Industries dumped into West Virginia’s water supply (a plume of poison which is now on its way to Cincinnati, and eventually Indiana). The answer on the degree of toxicity is…we don’t know. It’s had minimal testing.

She summarizes the toxicity tests that have been done on animals, which found it is “slightly toxic”, but that it caused suffering in the animals at all levels of exposure. There have been no long term studies done.

Complement that reading with this personal story of a West Virginian living without running water — which also mentions the powerlessness of being poor in Appalachia.


  1. garnetstar says

    Just from the chemical structure, I could see it was going to be bioactive. But probably more of an acute toxin than a long-acting one, though the latter is certainly not ruled out.

    When deciding how to handle a chemical, I’m more prone to look at its structure than to just believe the MSDS, because all that tells you is what people have bothered to figure out thus far. This one looks reactive to me, and I wouldn’t let anyone work with it without gloves, and glasses, and would prohibit all exposure to vapors. I wouldn’t let undergrads work with it at all.

    That it has a pronouced odor isn’t particularly good news: it’s doing at least one bioreaction. Maybe “only” 34 people ingested enough to be treated because, when the concentration built up, people stopped using the water because it smelled bad?

  2. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    . . . it caused suffering in the animals at all levels of exposure.

    Holy shit. So even down at one part per billion, it’ll cause suffering? Which means the Elk River and the Ohio River are contaminated with ‘suffering’ levels for how long?

  3. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says


    But we are testing the chemicals. Constantly. Every spill, every accidental or deliberate exposure. Just not well-documented or controlled tests. Sort of random testing. On everyone.

  4. Geral says

    That is very true. I do not put much faith into the chronic testing either even when there is some. I know someone who works in the industry using this sort of information on a daily basis. Often times what they would consider to be a chronic hazard is overruled because effects were only seen at ‘excessive’ exposures. That maybe fine and dandy when the substance is being used in very low concentrations for limited exposures but when crap like this occurs NOBODY knows the potential consequences. Well, someone may have an idea but they are not required to warn for it because it did not fit the criteria of the test (assuming it was tested).

    The European Union is implementing a program called REACH which makes test data more publicly available. It is at least a step in the right direction.

  5. schism says

    Complement that reading with this personal story of a West Virginian living without running water — which also mentions the powerlessness of being poor in Appalachia.

    I’d have more sympathy if these same people (on the whole) didn’t turn around and use this incident as a pro-Republican/anti-regulation rallying cry.

  6. Pteryxx says

    I’d have more sympathy if these same people (on the whole) didn’t turn around and use this incident as a pro-Republican/anti-regulation rallying cry.

    You must be this [educated/outspoken/possessed of safety nets/free of gag orders/resistant to propaganda] to deserve drinking water that doesn’t fumigate the building?

    You disgust me.

  7. says


    I’d have more sympathy if these same people (on the whole) didn’t turn around and use this incident as a pro-Republican/anti-regulation rallying cry.

    You seem to have missed a lot here – like the generations of poor in Appalachia who have been screwed over for generations, had their resources stolen out from under them time after time, and in this particular instance, don’t have any running water, which leaves them with what for water, do you think?

    Jesus fuckin’ vomited, dude. I think perhaps we had best check out your politics, your voting record, why your entire history, and judge whether or not you qualify for utilities like water. Oh, the person checking all that won’t agree with any of your politics, mind. I’m sure they’ll be fair.

  8. Pteryxx says

    I wouldn’t be citing HuffPo if I had any better sources of coverage.

    Sunday shows ignore West Virginia disaster

    Some 300,000 residents of West Virginia are without safe drinking water this weekend after 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol leaked into the Elk River. It’s a news story of great importance to ordinary human Americans, and so let’s round up all of the coverage the Sunday shows gave to one of the most significant (and potentially scandalous) environmental disasters in America since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

    (image of a tumbleweed)

    Oh, yeah, there was none. But look, it was really important that Sunday pundits cover this whole “Will Chris Christie Survive This Scandal To Run For President In 2016?” story. Time is of the essence on that one: They’ve only got two years left in which to have Really Deep Thoughts about it.

    Plus CBS’ “Face The Nation” just had to commemorate the Hudson River landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 — the five-year anniversary of that is in three days!

    And this one? Who Owns West Virginia’s Water: A Cautionary Tale

    That’s Matt Wasson, director of Appalachian Voices, which among their other projects organize citizen monitoring of spills and even citizen-based *water quality monitoring* because their governments, industries, and press won’t bother. For this article he cited the NY Times project from 2009, for which he provided documentation. That was the last time major media attention got paid to wholesale gutting of environmental protections in the region.

    I’m having to comb the West Virginia Gazette and Twitter to find background on the spill, and I forward these articles to news sites I follow hoping they’ll pick it up. Freedom Industries declared bankruptcy on a Friday afternoon, conveniently.

    Big industries like to locate in under-educated, anti-union, high-poverty states because they know damn well they can screw over those populations with relatively little nationwide public attention or sympathy. What are those people going to do, quit their industry jobs and go to work just down the road at their local Fact-Based Media and Textbooks Incorporated?

    (attempted to remove random italics)

  9. ChasCPeterson says

    a petition to hold “Freedom Industries” accountable.

    ccording to the previous post on “F”I, they’ve already been hit with a class-action lawsuit, and they filed for bankruptcy.

  10. raven says

    Is anyone monitoring environmental impacts? Besides on large primates?

    Terrestrial animals just have to drink that water. Aquatic organisms have to live in without any choice.

    I’m struck by just how little environmental monitoring is done after these disasters. We saw it in NYC after 9/11 when the EPA was caught flat footed and said the dust was nontoxic. It turned out to be highly toxic.

    We saw it with Fukushima. There is a lot of radioactive cesium in the Pacific and it is heading our way. We have little idea how much, where it is, and when it will get here. FWIW, I’m sure it will be diluted to insignificance. But in the lack of real data, the, “Oh my jesus, we are all going to die” crowd is going ape.

    Looks like we are seeing it now in West Virginia.

    And you really can’t blame the EPA. There budget has been cut and cut and a lot of skilled chemists have been laid off.

  11. raven says

    I knew some scientists who worked (past tense) for the EPA.

    After hurricane Katrina in NoLA, they got water samples to test for various pollutants and toxins.

    1. They couldn’t do it very well. The people that ran the equipment, HPC chromatographs and so on had been laid off due to budget problems.

    2. Which didn’t much matter because their equipment was mostly mothballed and much of it didn’t work.

    And oh yeah, they don’t work for the EPA any more themselves. Not too long after Katrina they were laid off due to…budget cuts. And never rehired. Thanks Bush.

  12. magistramarla says

    I grew up in an industrial area, surrounded by oil refineries, an ammunition plant, a glassworks, a steelworks, a chemical plant and probably several other toxic factories. The air always stank and our water tasted and smelled odd. My childhood friend’s parents lost their home when a gas leaked into their basement and caught fire. Another childhood friend died when he fell into a vat of acid at one of the refineries.
    I suffer from several odd autoimmune diseases. Several people that I grew up with have died of cancer. A young third cousin is a survivor of childhood leukemia.
    I will always wonder whether the pollutants in that area have caused my own illnesses and those of others.

  13. says

    Born raised and living in Charleston, WV. I’m lucky enough to have the resources to get out of town while this has been going down.

    It’s been a nightmare.

  14. khms says

    Holy shit. Sounds like a description of same areas of pre-unification East Germany (for example Bitterfeld).

    Some months after the unification (IIRC) I had opportunity to visit Mosbach (near Eisenach and the Wartburg). Picture a green valley, with a small village along the street following the valley. You open the car door to get out, and the first thing to hit you is … the air stinks. And I don’t mean like manure.

    I’m told it’s all better now.

  15. says

    Don’t bother trying to hold “Freedom Industries,” the owners of the coal-cleaning gunk tank, responsible.

    The company, which has existed for only a few weeks, has just had its liability underwritten by a creditor. A creditor that was just formed the other day – by the same people who own and run Freedom Industries.

    Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy already. As the prime creditor, this new company (of the same people) will be the primary debtor and will get everything Freedom Industries had minus the liabilities, and they will continue on as before.

    Meanwhile communities are looking to contract out for emergency water supplies.

    Which the coal industry is heavily invested in.

  16. vaiyt says

    The story resonated with me because, for some people in my area, water shortages are almost routine.

  17. vaiyt says

    Don’t bother trying to hold “Freedom Industries,” the owners of the coal-cleaning gunk tank, responsible.

    The company, which has existed for only a few weeks, has just had its liability underwritten by a creditor. A creditor that was just formed the other day – by the same people who own and run Freedom Industries.

    Is this kind of thing even legal?

  18. jagwired says

    Is this kind of thing even legal?

    I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The magic, invisible hand of the market will sort this whole mess out.

  19. says

    I mangled some terms and such up there, mixed up debtor with …um debtee? etc.
    But anyway that’s what I saw reported… that the company underwriting Freedom Industies was formed on the same day it underwrote their debt, etc.

  20. ck says

    I hope this shit with shell companies providing loans in order to secure “Freedom Industries” assets from bankruptcy is enough for the courts to “pierce the corporate veil” and hold the directors of the company personally responsible. It is painfully transparent what they’re trying to do, and it should clearly not be allowed.

  21. Pteryxx says

    ThinkProgress: Chemical-related hospital admissions have doubled since water declared safe

    On Jan. 12, the day before do-not-use orders began being lifted, health department officials cited 10 hospital admissions, 169 people treated and released from the emergency room, and a little more than 1,000 calls to the poison control center.

    By Saturday — the same day the final 2 percent of people affected by the spill got their water back — those numbers had increased significantly. According to a report in the Charleston Gazette, health officials said 20 people had been admitted to the hospitals, 411 had been treated and released from the emergency room, and 2,302 had called the poison control center. Of those, 1,862 were human-related, 98 were animal-related and the rest were requests for information only.

    Saturday’s numbers were also much greater than Thursday’s numbers, when health officials said only 317 had been treated and 14 had been hospitalized.


    So far, however, no official diagnoses have been reported linking patients’ symptoms to water exposure.

    “As far as the data and recommendations we have from West Virginia American Water, the water is safe to use,” Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said. “We’re not saying it’s safe. West Virginia American Water is saying it’s safe. We are taking their word for it.”

    Citing the Gazette:

    In a news release sent out Saturday by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s office, government officials pointed to anxiety, flu season and the inability of residents to consistently wash their hands with soap and water as reasons for the hospital visits.

    “We’re in the middle of flu and virus season,” Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of state Bureau of Public Health said in the release. “While the [hand] sanitizer is good for cleaning, it isn’t great for eliminating a virus. Some people are getting these viruses, as many people do every winter. In addition, a lot of people are getting very anxious. Anxiety is a real diagnosis and it can be really hard on people and it’s OK to be seen by a health professional to ensure you’re OK.”

    Tierney also downplayed the reports of rashes and burns, saying they are easily treated with over-the-counter remedies.

    “Some doctors have described it as a ‘solar burn,’ which is similar to a sunburn,” she said in the release. “Basically, it’s red skin. Everyone has different sensitivities, and as we move through the flushing process, sediment has been stirred up from your hot-water tank and the pipes.”

  22. gussnarp says

    Oh, boy! It’s headed my way, how exciting! And we get our drinking water here in Cincinnati right out of the Ohio River, so this will be great! We do have one of the best water treatment systems in the country, but water treatment is almost entirely designed to remove particulates and organisms and is almost useless in dealing with dissolve chemicals. So there’s that… Wait, I’m having real trouble finding a bright side.

    Seriously, this is one of the biggest reasons I consider myself an environmentalist: pollution is not local. Pollute the water, it affects us all. Pollute the air, it affects us all. And we’re stuck downriver from Pittsburgh and downwind from a number of dirty coal plants in a river valley that traps pollutants in the air.

    I found the bright side: Indian Hill, a wealthy suburb of Cincinnati, also gets its water from the Ohio River. It is also contributes more money to the Republican Party than any other city. I wonder if they suddenly can’t use their tap water if we’ll finally get some effective regulation.

  23. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Contaminated drinking water can be cleaned up to a large degree with carbon filtration. I don’t know if any of the city water suppliers along the Ohio river use carbon filtration as part of their clean-up process, but if they do, they do, it will be a big help for water users. Buying a carbon filtration unit for your faucet where you get drinking water wouldn’t be a bad idea. Buy some spare cartridges and swap them out if the water gets an off taste.

  24. garnetstar says

    Again, from looking at the structure of the molecule, Nerd @31 is absolutely correct. Carbon filters on the faucets will really clean this chemical out well, to the point that you can probably wash in it. I don’t know that I’d drink it, though.

    Filters wouldn’t have helped in West VA because it sounded like it was too concentrated, but as a chemist I really second the recommendation to people downstream. If the authorities say that there’s no hazard and you can drink the water, I’d use the filters anyway, for some days, before I drank it.

  25. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    If you use bottled water for drinking during the crisis, make sure you get one of the varieties that isn’t just tap water. Several name brands do use something similar to the process we use to make USP purified water at work, which includes carbon filtration and reverse osmosis.

  26. shadow says

    I wouldn’t drink the water until I’ve seen the ‘authorities’ and the business owner drink the same water for several days without ill effects.

    Even then, purified bottled water.

  27. Pteryxx says

    A few updates:

    Oh, by the way, there was a second unknown chemical in the spill, and Freedom Industries isn’t disclosing what it was because it’s proprietary.

    Oh, by the way, the leak was actually 10,000 gallons, 25% greater than Freedom originally reported.

    And the investigation into the spill is going slowly because all the investigating and regulatory agencies involved have had their budgets cut.

    The federal Chemical Safety Board is conducting a long-term investigation into what went wrong at Freedom Industries’ site on the Elk, and what can be done to prevent future incidents.

    The CSB has 41 employees, about half of whom are investigators. Its investigation in Charleston is expected to take about a year. The agency’s budget — about $10.5 million — has been essentially flat for the last five years, although after the leak its 2014 funding was increased by $500,000, following a request by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

    The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives previously passed a broad spending bill that would have cut the CSB’s funding by 25 percent, to about $8 million per year.

    Rafael Moure-Eraso, the CSB’s chairman, said that his agency had also lost $450,000 in 2013 due to the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration. He said that funding issues have slowed down and hampered his agency’s investigations.

    “Oh very much so. We have three active investigative teams, so in order for Mr. Banks to be here with his team, he has to stop the work on the particular investigation he was running,” Moure-Eraso said.

    Lead investigator Johnnie Banks had to leave his investigation of an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, to come to the Kanawha Valley.

    “We have to go back to West, and come back to this, and share time like that,” Moure-Eraso said. “We just have to come and start an investigation and do the best we can with the resources we have. And we would like to be more efficient in what we produce, but it’s a problem.”

    In 2013, the CDC gave $160 million less to state and local public health offices than it did in 2012, according to an agency fact sheet. It also cut $33 million from state and local programs to respond to natural and manmade disasters.

    “We do less,” said Debra Lubar, a CDC financial official, when asked the results of cuts. “What our director has often been quoted as saying is that threats are not going down and so it is concerning to not be able to grow with the public health threats.”


    In an email statement sent Friday, the EPA wrote that water quality monitoring is generally conducted by states, but with the support of federal grants that do things like help control pollution and support water quality management.

    “The 2013 sequestration reduced federal support for state water quality programs,” EPA officials wrote in the statement. “These cuts have made it harder for states to maintain their monitoring programs.”

    In a letter to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee written last year, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wrote, “Reductions under sequestration would limit assistance provided to states and tribes to ensure safe and clean water, including … protecting rivers and streams from industrial and municipal pollution discharges.”

  28. Pteryxx says

    Freedom Industries knew about the second chemical immediately, and notified its own workers, but neglected to tell officials until last week.

    A roundup at BillMoyers.com:

    John Pottow, an expert in bankruptcy and commercial law at the University of Michigan Law School, tells BillMoyers.com that most claims are “dischargeable” by the bankruptcy court. That means that the company’s creditors, state regulatory agencies and anyone suing for damages would have to get in line for a piece of Freedom’s assets proportional to their claims.

    There are “narrow” exceptions, he said. A company can’t get bankruptcy relief for damages resulting from “fraud, or intentional personal injury.” The company can also still be stuck with some kinds of government fines. Criminal investigations aren’t impacted by the bankruptcy.

    But the courts will likely treat any fines that regulators may levy on Freedom — and they could add up — like any other debt. Asked whether the company could use the court to shirk responsibility for those sorts of liabilities, Pottow said that there’s “a gatekeeping power in the bankruptcy code, so when a company files a Chapter 11 petition, they can get thrown out of bankruptcy for bad faith.” But, he continued, “there’s a perverse reasoning here: The worse they are, the more likely they are to incur penalties and fines, which makes it more likely that they have a legitimate need to file for bankruptcy.”

    and from ThinkProgress, A history of poverty and pollution

    Merner tests groundwater across southern West Virginia for communities reliant on coal fields. She’s seen faucet water run black year-round, and bathtubs filled orange. She’s measured water with high levels of lead, arsenic and strontium. The media generally focuses on isolated areas of West Virginia when reporting on contamination, she said, but the reality is that one in every five streams she tests have been spoiled.

    “People who have their water running orange year round, you internalize that pollution as something that’s OK because you’ve been in it your entire life,” she said.

    Lida Shepherd, who runs a youth group for low-income teenagers in Boone county, said many of the kids she works with live “literally right below” mountaintop removal sites. Their communities have significantly higher total poverty rates and child poverty rates every year compared to other counties, according to a recent peer-reviewed study from Michael Hendryx, a professor at West Virginia University. Shepherd’s kids, she said, weren’t surprised to hear of the water ban that was enacted January 9.

    “These kids are no strangers to not being able to drink their water,” Shepherd said. “These kids deal with this kind of thing on a pretty regular basis just because they live in very heavily mined areas.”

    Because their water is so often contaminated, Shepherd said some of the kids were not taking last week’s ban on potable water very seriously.

    “One of my girls, she was saying she was taking a shower in it anyway,” Shepherd said. “And that could be a product of just, ‘Hey, we hear this all the time, and we’re still alive. We haven’t died yet.’”


    Like Gunnoe, Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies in Morgantown, West Virginia, said he hopes the spill will serve as a wake-up call for state and national lawmakers. But he said the first thing that needs to happen for any regulatory changes to be made in West Virginia is for the governor and the DEP to acknowledge the link between clean water and a healthy economy — something he said they have yet to do.

    “They have been very clear that their number one priority is protecting jobs and the fossil fuel industry, no matter the environmental consequences,” he said.

    Until they decide to acknowledge that link, those who live in the poor areas housing West Virginia’s mountaintop removal communities have little choice but to deal with their white or orange or chemical-laced water. Or, as West Virginia resident James Simon has put it, they could hit the road.

    “The environmental protection [agency] won’t help us … the law won’t help us. Nobody on earth wants to help us,” Simon said. “My only solution is to get out of here.”

  29. Pteryxx says

    from Al Jazeera via Salon: Coalfield Stockholm syndrome.

    Despite the accident, the decline of the coal industry — which McKinney blames on political factors — is what he believes is the region’s biggest long-term problem, not the poisoning of the water supply. His main wish for his state is a bigger, not smaller, coal industry, providing good jobs which are not curtailed by environmental regulations.

    “I’m speaking for a thousand, fifteen hundred people that’s been laid off throughout West Virginia. There’s a lot of families that’s lost homes, families that’s been broken up over it,” McKinney said, speaking near a creek that emitted a strong odor of sulfur as a steady stream of large dump trucks from a nearby mine rumbled past.

    Many environmental activists find it frustrating that people harmed by coal pollution will apologize for the industry.

    “I call it Coalfield Stockholm syndrome, and it is on a mass scale,” said Dustin White, an activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, who is from Boone County himself.

    “We are programmed early on,” said White, 30, who is also the son of a coal miner. “They (the industry) have ingrained themselves in every aspect of our lives.”

    “They are in our schools, telling children they should ‘grow up like Daddy and become a coal miner,’ and telling them they don’t need an education when they can work for the industry and make large amounts of money. Even have ‘coal career days’ for children in grade schools.”


    “The outside media is always trying to run down the coal industry because they contribute to global warming,” Lengyel said, but maintained that those reports fail to recognize how crucial coal is to the operation of local services like the ambulance association, because property tax revenue from the coal industry remains key to its operation.

    Butch Barker, a maintenance worker at the ambulance association, said that some people in coal country bear ill will toward environmentalists for challenging the industry, blaming the activists for job losses or mine closures.

    “I know people who hate the environmentalists. They’re afraid they’re going to take their jobs,” Barker said.

    He said the bad feelings are so strong that some people might refuse to take water from activists, referring to the environmentalists that handed out free water in his hometown of Nellis.

    The son of a miner himself, Barker, whose uncle died in a mine accident in 1943 along with 10 others, said neither side understands the other, but he personally believes there’s a middle ground.

    “It goes both ways,” he said. “They can coexist and make things a lot better.”

    Still, to Barker, mines are vital to Boone, with other jobs scarce and far away. “If you take the mines out of this county, there ain’t gonna be nothing.”

    Environmentalists say there’s plenty of work to be done in cleaning up the damage done by mining.

    “Yeah? How long’s that going to last?” he said.

  30. Pteryxx says

    Scientist finds formaldehyde in Charleston tap water

    “It’s frightening, it really is frightening,” said Scott Simonton, a member of the EQB, which oversees water permits for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “What we know scares us, and we know there’s a lot more we don’t know.”

    Simonton told a joint legislative committee on water resources that his family is still not drinking or cooking with the water, weeks after the water company and government officials have said it is safe for all uses.

    “Your level of what risk you will accept is up to you, I can only tell you what mine is and I’m not drinking the water,” Simonton said. “The formaldehyde had me personally a little freaked out.”

    More from AP

    “I can guarantee that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde,” Simonton said. “They’re taking a hot shower. This stuff is breaking down into formaldehyde in the shower or in the water system, and they’re inhaling it.”

    Initial testing at Vandalia Grille in Charleston showed traces of the chemical in the water. Other testing showed no traces of formaldehyde, but samples are still being processed.

    “The problem is, we’re seeing it in water. We don’t know what the concentration is in air.” Simonton told reporters Wednesday. “We do know that there is enough mass of that contaminant to exceed EPA safe levels in air.”

    American Water customers surprised by increased bills for water they weren’t using

    Increased water bills aren’t confined to Dunbar. Harry Machado of Winfield said his latest water bill is about 40 percent more than his previous bill.

    “We were out of town for two days during the water crisis, and we haven’t been using the water for anything but flushing the toilet,” he said. Even after being cleared to flush his water lines, Machado said, he and his wife are still drinking and cooking with bottled water.

    “Where’s that 1,000-gallon credit they’re supposed to give us?”

    Water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the water residents used to flush out their pipes might account for much of the increase in use. She said the water company is still working out details with the state Public Service Commission on how to apply the water credit.

    “Those [credits] have not been applied yet,” Jordan said. “Customers will see that on a future bill.

    “For some customers, it may be their next bill, and for some, it may be the bill after that.”