Water issues are central to West Virginia coal industry future

Jan. 21, 2014

Impact on water quality goes well beyond immediate consequences of chemical spill

About 100,000 water-utility customers or about 300,000 people in all, in nine West Virginia counties, were told on Jan. 9 not to drink, shower or wash clothes with tap water, after an estimated 5,000 gallons of a chemical used in coal processing spilled into the Elk River in the state’s capital city of Charleston.

The leak was first identified after several people along the river noted a sweet, licorice-like smell, The Christian Science Monitor reports. The Kanawha County Fire Dept. and the state Dept. of Environmental Protection tracked the odor to a containment tank at a Freedom Industries site. The company has since filed for bankruptcy, press reports indicate.

A chemical used to clean coal, 4 – methylcyclohexene methanol, had leaked from a hole in the bottom of a storage tank, overflowed its containment tank and, it was reported by investigators, traveled through the ground to the river, entering it about one mile from the state’s largest water treatment plant. The site hadn’t been officially inspected since 1991.

As of last Friday, everyone has been told it is again safe to use their home’s water. But at the same time, pregnant women were cautioned to continue avoiding drinking it. It turns out too that the toxicity levels for this chemical are little known and that it has been exempted from testing under laws that govern toxic substances, because the statutes grandfathered materials already in use. Thus, considerable confusion was reigning.

How it’s used

The leaked chemical is used in coal washing, removing sulphur and other impurities from the widely used energy source that remains the state’s bread and butter. This separation process is usually done at the mine site, according to reports from The Christian Science Monitor.

Coal washing, it turns out, also uses very large volumes of water. It uses differences in density to separate coal from sulphur, ash and rock. Water or some other fluid is pulsed upward through a bed of crushed coal and its impurities. The lighter coal particles rise to the top of the slurry, while the heavier impurities fall and are removed from the bottom. The purified coal is then dried.

 Chemicals like 4 – methylcyclohexene methanol, added to the water, create a frothy, heavy consistency that enhances the process. Disposal of the left-over sludge is a big challenge. Some of it is poured down abandoned mine shafts and some of it is held in pools behind dams.

The impact of the coal industry on water quality in West Virginia is a big issue well beyond the immediate consequences of this chemical spill. Headlines noting that “pregnant women and water don’t mix in West Virginia” clearly indicate that interested parties will use the spill as a wedge issue to open a wider, more public discussion.

A larger problem

 Following a 2008 chemical explosion in the state, a safety board made recommendations. Advocates point out that none have been approved subsequently by the state legislature.

It is also the case that coal industry pollution of the water supply is so dire that it is reported some rural communities must rely for tap water on supplies piped in from Charleston. In fact, it sounds like many of the people who lost access to municipal water West Virginia American Water due to the chemical spill, had lost access to clean well water some time before. You can think of this part of West Virginia as you do of the Gulf of Mexico, a region of the earth devoted to energy production.

According to Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, “billions of gallons of slurry” are held behind earthen dams, “some of which are larger than the Hoover Dam.” 

She also says the state’s governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, vowed days before the accident, to “never back down from the Environmental Protection Agency because of its misguided policies on coal.” Even now she says he asserts that this spill has nothing to do with the coal industry.

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