More questions than answers about impact of West Virginia chemical spill on Ohio River and ecology

Some said they smell chemical locally

CINCINNATI -- As a chemical leak from West Virginia inched along the Ohio River toward Cincinnati this week, city officials announced plans to keep drinking water safe while local ecologists and water quality experts offered more questions than answers.

Tuesday night at about 11:30 p.m., Cincinnati Water Works spokesperson Michelle Ralston said no chemicals were detected in the water. The liquid chemical was expected to pass the city’s largest water intake facility at about 9 p.m. Tuesday but ran late and is now expected in the area Wednesday morning.

Mayor John Cranley and city officials said Monday that access to safe drinking water is their top priority.

Cincinnati Water Works shut off valves that carry Ohio River water into the system at 11:45 p.m. Tuesday and will use reserves as well as water from upstream of the Ohio until officials deem the water safe from the chemical, Crude MCHM, or mostly 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol .

Crude MCHM, which few scientists were familiar with before the discovery of the spill last week, cleans impurities like sulfur and other pollutants from coal during its processing. Its leak left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians without tap water and with lots of unanswered questions.

To date, most of the safety information about the chemical has come from its Material Safety Data Sheet , a mandatory form describing chemicals in workplaces. It outlines responses to exposure to concentrated amounts of the chemical while in a facility. It does not address responses to the chemical in relation to the natural world.

“We don’t have good environmental effects data on it,” said Jerry Schulte, manager of source water protection and emergency response for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO). “We really don’t know what the effects are going to be.”

For now, Schulte’s priority is monitoring the progress of the leak and measuring just how much of the chemical remains in the water.

“We have two crews out on the Ohio River,” he said, "one from the Kentucky Division of Water and one from the U.S. Coast Guard.”

"Moderate" To "Slightly" Toxic

As much as 5,000 gallons of Crude MCHM, leaked from a Freedom Industries storage tank and into the Elk River, then to the Kanawha River and eventually into the Ohio River.

Crude MCHM can be classified as either “moderately” or “slightly” toxic, according to different government agencies. It wasn’t until after the spill that the Centers for Disease Control established a “safe” limit for human consumption—1 particle of Crude MCHM per million particles of water. Think of it as 1 inch of exposure in 16 miles.

So far, results show far less than that amount further downstream from the leak. ORSANCO data showed up to 36 parts per billion (with a B) of Crude MCHM in the Ohio River at Huntington, W. Va., which sits about 150 miles upriver from Cincinnati, as of early Monday morning.

Still, observers at Greenup Lock and Dam, located closer to Cincinnati, smelled the chemical, described as like licorice, when it reached the site just before noon Monday. Results from water testing there are due from ORSANCO this morning.

“The unsettling thing is that even at levels far lower than what have been considered harmless, people can still smell it,” said ORSANCO Executive Director Peter Tennant. “If I turned on my tap and it smelled like licorice, I wouldn’t put that water through my coffee filter.”

In addition, some environmental experts dispute how officials arrived at the limit, and others wonder about the information not yet available about the consequences of exposure to Crude MCHM, even in a diluted form.

Does it cause cancer? Mutations? No one has studied its impact; so no one knows.

Impact Beyond Drinking Water

“There are possibilities for both short and long-term impacts,” said stream ecologist Jeremy M. Alberts, a doctoral student in the University of Cincinnati’s Biology Department, in an email. “I've read that the half-life MCHM is about two weeks in water, but nearly 140 days in sediments.”

Schulte said ORSANCO’s biological monitoring program will be able to measure potential impact on fish and bug populations in the wake of the spill, but not until examining populations and comparing totals across time. That process will start in the spring and continue through the summer. “We will be looking at our data,” he said.

Experts agree that while local drinking water remains protected, the ecology of and life in and around the Ohio River faces bigger unknowns.

“It's difficult to predict end results, especially given the lack of information regarding the volume of chemical that made its way into the river and how it behaved once it entered the water,” Alberts said.

“From a risk assessment perspective, this could, and probably should, lead to discussions related to the storage and transport of hazardous materials in manners that might inadvertently compromise the systems upon which we rely.” 

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