Water Contamination in West Virginia: Then and Now

Did you know that a very serious chemical spill took place in West Virginia just a couple of years ago?

Did you know that this serious West Virginia water contamination incident is still causing effects today?

Were you aware that something this serious could happen in your own backyard?

In 2014, water contamination in West Virginia reached a critical level when the Elk River chemical spill took place. This very serious incident was unexpected and unplanned for, and it caused widespread devastation in the surrounding environment as well as illness in the individuals who lived in the area.

This serious water spill has been compared to the Camp Lejeune water contamination in North Carolina, although the effects may not be so severe in the long run. The Elk River spill was cleaned up, but the environment suffered greatly from it anyhow.

In this article, you’ll learn about what happened at Elk River, as well as who was involved and which chemicals entered into the water supply. You’ll also find out how it affected the environment and the people, and you’ll learn what’s being done today in the wake of this spill.

Read on to find out more.

What Happened?

The Elk River chemical spill took place on January 9, 2014. On this date, a tank containing methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, broke and spilled into the water supply upstream from one of the largest water distribution facilities in West Virginia. Since it happened upstream, the contaminated water quickly flowed into the water distribution facility and threatened to be sent to residents and commercial properties throughout the Kanawha River Valley. Three hundred thousand people were soon left without drinkable water and found themselves under strict orders not to use the water from this facility.

water from this facility


This chemical spill was a part of the Freedom Industries factory located at this location. Simply speaking, this facility was intended for use in chemical storage, but it did not actually use the chemicals that were stored there. Although the storage facility had the proper permits to store these chemicals on the premises, no inspections had been performed on the site in over twenty years. Because of this, maintenance and safety were slipping, and the people of West Virginia, unfortunately, had to pay for that by losing access to potable water.

How Did It Happen?

On the day of the incident, 7,500 gallons of MCHM began to leak from a storage container by way of a small hole in the bottom of the steel box. This chemical leached into the soil and traveled swiftly toward the nearby Elk River. Since the Freedom Industries facility was only one mile away from the water treatment facility that serviced the area, it took almost no time for this chemical to reach the water supply for Charleston and the surrounding areas.

 notice a sweet smell in the air


When the spill was noticed, the company claimed that they were working to contain it almost immediately. However, by then, it was already too late to do anything about the Elk River. Residents in the area began to notice a sweet smell in the air that came from the chemical, and when inspections were performed on the facility, it turned out that no cleanup was underway at all. The water treatment facility tried to filter the chemicals out of the water but realized by the end of the day that this would be impossible. They called for no use of the city’s water supply immediately.

Which Chemicals Spilled?

MCHM is used in the production of coal. This chemical is usually used to clean coal of impurities before it is processed, but it was not being used for this purpose at the storage facility. Increased and extended exposure to MCHM can potentially cause damage to the liver and kidneys, as well as stomach upset and other digestive issues.

Which Communities Were Affected?

A huge part of the Charleston area in West Virginia was affected by this chemical spill. Three hundred thousand people were left without potable drinking water at the time of the spill. These people resided in the counties of Clay, Boone, Roane, Putnam, Kanawha, Jackson, Cabell, Logan, and Lincoln in and around Charleston. A few small portions of these areas were unaffected since they got their water from other places, but the vast majority of them were put under a strict water ban until the spill could be cleared up. Seven hundred total people were admitted to the hospital during the course of the spill, most with symptoms of rashes or nausea from drinking the contaminated water.

Who Was Involved?

There were a few key players involved in this water contamination situation. Below are listed the main groups that were part of the spill.

  • Freedom Industries – This is the company that was responsible for the safe storage of the chemical that leaked into the water supply. They were negligent with regular inspections and they were not responsive when the leak first happened. They tried to hide the duration of the leak from investigators and violated the Clean Water Act in many ways.
  • West Virginia American Water – This was the water distribution and treatment facility that serviced the Charleston and surrounding areas. It was responsible for the water supply for three hundred thousand people. It originally tried to filter the contaminants from the water but was unable to do so.
  • Department of Environmental Protection – The DEP was involved almost right away as soon as it became apparent that a spill had taken place. Their investigators found out the true extent of the spill at the site, and they eventually were crucial in charging the right people as well.

Six people were eventually charged with negligent discharge of a pollutant as part of the Clean Water Act. These included Gary Southern, the president of Freedom Industries when the leak happened, as well as three other previous owners who contributed to the leak by not performing regular maintenance and upkeep of the facility. Two other employees of Freedom Industries were also charged on the same grounds.

How Did the Spill Affect the Environment?

As soon as the spill was reported to West Virginia American Water, they began trying to flush their water lines to remove the chemical using other types of chemicals as well as added carbon. Unfortunately, this affected the environment by introducing overloads of other chemicals into the ground and surrounding areas. However, the process was continued, as it was slowly able to leach the MCHM out of the water supply.

environment by overloads


At the time, no one quite understood the environmental impact this chemical spill might have on the area. However, no fish kills were reported from the spill, which was a very important and very good finding in the weeks following the incident. It’s believed that the spill might have had some effect on the endangered diamond darter fish, however, which now only lives in the Elk River and nowhere else in the world. It will take a few more years to find out whether or not this is the case, though. Unfortunately, many fish caught from the Elk River did contain the MCHM chemical, and area residents have been steering clear of eating these fish in order to avoid further contamination.

How Did the Spill Affect the People?

Unfortunately, at the time of the spill, very little was understood about the effects of MCHM on human health. Not much has been learned since then, either, although it became more and more obvious that ingesting this chemical in large amounts could cause nausea and vomiting, digestive upset, rashes, and headaches. Contact with the skin, such as in showers and baths, could cause pain, burning, itching, and reddening. Difficulty breathing is a rare but potential effect of exposure to this chemical as well.

 the effects of MCHM


It is not believed that consuming MCHM can be fatal, but it is still considered hazardous. Complications from exposure to the chemical could still cause death in some individuals, particularly with weakened immune systems or preexisting conditions. Because of the potential threat to human health, this chemical was a very big concern when it entered into the water supply. Although residents were assured it was not potentially fatal, they were still told not to use the water until it was completely safe once again.

What Actions Came About After the Spill?

Since the chemical spill, concerned individuals and groups in West Virginia and around the country have spoken out and managed to get some standards changed in the chemical storage industry. Above-ground chemical storage tanks were soon subjected to more rigorous inspections and testing, and tanks that didn’t meet requirements are slowly being phased out of use. Utilities are now also required to have plans for how to deal with oil spills in the area. Although right now, these new rules and requirements only exist in certain states, efforts are being made to spread them around the country.

rigorous inspections and testing


Unfortunately, not every action following the spill was a good one. Since the spill was not designed as hazardous, it was assumed it could be safely dumped in a landfill in Hurricane, West Virginia, which is located near the site of the original spill. This was met with extreme complaints from the town, however, which could smell the odd licorice aroma coming from the disposed chemicals. Since this happened, Freedom Industries is required to monitor MCHM levels in groundwater for the next five years to be sure it does not contaminate the water in the area further than it already has.

What is the Status Today?

Today and into the future, it is more important than ever for individuals and groups within communities around the United States to fight back against the lack of regulation and control over industries responsible for handling chemicals. Whether these chemicals are part of the coal industry or not, they should always be considered as substances that must be controlled in order to protect the environment as well as the people that live in the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, although such a bad spill should have led to more legislation ensuring the safety of drinking water, this has not happened. Chemical regulations haven’t changed very significantly, and there is a long road ahead for anyone fighting for stricter ones.

 potable drinking water once again


The affected areas in West Virginia have potable drinking water once again, and it was restored several weeks after the initial incident. During those weeks, bottled water was very scarce in the area, and as it was impossible to boil the chemical out of the water, many residents were forced into temporary evacuation. Now that residents have returned to the area, some believe that there’s no way the chemical is completely gone from their drinking water, and they believe they may be lied to about the potential hazards associated with it. However, there is no information to back up these claims by concerned area residents.


There is a lot to be learned from what happened at Elk River. Unfortunately, this terrible experience has occurred again since the first time, and it continues to be a possibility in any place where industries are located. When chemical spills happen, the environment suffers just as much as the people, and no one is left unaffected. It is very important for industries to be carefully regulated so that situations like this don’t arise again in the future. It’s even more important for inspections to be performed regularly because the potential for truly tragic outcomes is more likely than you might think.

If you live in an area where industries like this are prevalent, don’t be afraid to call your local government and ask them what sorts of ordinances are in effect to protect your drinking water. Find out what types of inspections and regulations take place at your local factories to ensure that this type of spill doesn’t happen in your area. If you feel more outgoing, you can even call the companies themselves and ask about what they’re doing to be sure you and the other members of your community stay safe from potential water contamination.