While the chemical that spilled from a Charleston, W.Va. plant some 13 days ago dilutes as it travels down the Ohio River, the two-fold question of “will it reach Metropolis and what could it do here” may be in the back of many people’s minds.
It was Jan. 9 when residents near Charleston’s Freedom Industries complained of a licorice-like odor wafting from the site. Two days later, reports hit the news waves that a tank at the plant had ruptured, causing at least 7500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) to cascade past a containment area and pour into the Elk River. Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy in the time since the incident.
MCHM is a foaming chemical agent used to wash coal. The spill quickly prompted a water ban in Charleston, that was lifted on Saturday. While authorities say it isn’t lethal, MCHM can cause vomiting, nausea and skin, eye and throat irritation. Until the accident, the Centers for Disease Control had no standard for how much of the the chemical in water is safe for human consumption, so they came up with one using the little research done on the MCHM — an animal study that estimated the lethal does for rats — stating that 1 part per million (ppm) is the maximum acceptable level in drinking water.
Part of the Mississippi River watershed, the 172-mile long Elk River is a tributary of the Ohio, via the Kanawaha River in central West Virginia.
The MCHM plume was first detected in the Ohio on Jan. 12. When it reached Ashland, Ky., on Monday, 0.023 ppm of the chemical were detected. The plume reached Cincinnati, 200 miles from Charleston, on Thursday and took roughly 22 hours to pass the Ohio city. Early Monday morning, trace amounts of the chemical were found in Evansville, Ind.’s monitoring of the river. Evansville is 600 miles from Charleston and like Cincinnati and Louisville, draws its drinking supply from the river.
While some 120 miles of river separates Metropolis from Evansville, city “residents should not be affected by this spill,” said J.K. Thomas, water superintendent for the City of Metropolis.
Instead of the river, Metropolis’ water supply is ground water drawn from deep wells.
“We do not draw from the Ohio River and because our wells are deep, we are not under the direct influence of the river,” Thomas said.
However, he noted, officials will be monitoring the river for MCHM.
“Even though this spill is on the Ohio River, more attention will be given to our sampling and testing, especially for documentation purposes of this event,” Thomas said.
The Metropolis Water Department is monitors its water several times a day.
“At our facility, each shift collects samples daily from various points within our treatment process,” Thomas explained. “These samples are then tested to confirm water quality and will determine whether or not adjustments to the process are necessary in order to achieve our finished product goal. In the event of an incident that would affect our source of supply, we can shut down for 24 hours to evaluate the situation and determine the appropriate course of action for monitoring and treatment.”