One such example is the recent chemical spill that threatened the water supply for more than 300,000 people in the nine-county region of Charleston, W. Va. Besides not having drinking water for nearly a week, affected residents, businesses and schools also couldn’t bathe in the water, which prevents quite an inconvenience especially when the nearest source of good water is hours away.
The chemical spill last week from a tank farm at a two-week old company — Freedom Industries — wasn’t regulated despite being on the bank of the Elk River. The chemical in question, MCHM — also known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol — is used to process and clean coal and isn’t considered a hazardous chemical — unless it is ingested. Once ingested, it can cause skin irritation, vomiting and diarrhea, among other symptoms.
About 7,500 gallons of the chemical flowed into the area’s water supply from a leak at the plant, according to media reports. While West Virginia’s laws might vary somewhat from those in Kansas, the Sunflower State faces similar concerns about protecting its water supply. Ottawa’s Marais des Cygnes River supplies water to about 60 percent of Franklin County’s residents, Alan Radcliffe, Franklin County emergency management director, said.
Radcliffe said this area has safeguards in place to protect the Marais des Cygnes from a situation like the West Virginia contamination. He cited one incident during the past decade, a chemical spill from a leaking BNSF train car west of Ottawa near Idaho and Georgia roads in western Franklin County, near Pomona. That incident, which involved the evacuation of 30 homes, was handled quickly and appropriately because responsible parties reported the leaks to the correct agencies. A BNSF train derailment near Wellsville in 2005 resulted in 200 gallons of diesel fuel flowing in nearby Rock Creek. Another derailment occurred just three months earlier in northern Franklin County.
“The first thing we ask when the call comes in to 911 is what the chemical is and whether the spill is going into the ground or a water source,” Radcliffe said. Spills on the ground can be remediated better than those into water, he said.
Kansas has significant chemical plants in the Kansas City and Wichita areas, but it appears the most potential for contamination to Franklin County’s water supply is from chemicals on trains. Fortunately, the City of Ottawa has valves and water intakes in the levee system it can shut down, when needed, if such an incident were to occur.
Though the business causing chemical spills is responsible for the cost of clean-up efforts, the West Virginia company behind the recent spill, which was ordered to close last week by state officials, already has declared bankruptcy, according to a report in the Charleston Gazette. An investigation is pending on the cause of the leak, but it certainly appears the company is running away from its responsibility.
— Jeanny Sharp,
editor and publisher