Friday, January 10, 2014

Chemical Spill in West Virginia

West Virginia chemical spill hits water supplies

On January 9, 2014, a chemical used by Freedom Industries in the froth flotation process of coal washing and preparation, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, spilled into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia, resulting in a tap water ban for as many as 300,000 people. The governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, has declared a state of emergency for nine counties. Health officials were advising residents to use the water only for flushing toilets and fighting fires. "West Virginians in the affected service areas are urged not to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing," Tomblin said in a statement. "Right now, our priorities are our hospitals, nursing homes and schools."
The spill occurred right above the intake of the Kanawha Valley water treatment plant in Charleston, the largest in the state, and originated at Freedom Industries, a Charleston company that produces  specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries. Shuler Goodwin said the West Virginia department of environment protection received a report on Thursday morning of an odour – described in local media as resembling black licorice – and visited the Freedom Industries site, where officials found a leaking storage unit.

File:Elk River WV map.png

4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol could potentially be harmful if swallowed, causing vomiting, and could potentially cause skin and eye irritation. As is unfortunately all too common with industrial chemicals, there is very little information about the actual toxicity of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol available. There is no ToxFAQ sheet ( for this compound, nor is it listed on the EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) ( ) and the available MSDSs are somewhat contradictory. Here is information from one source

In particular, I like #28 "After contact with skin, wash immediately with plenty of ... (to be specified by the manufacturer)"  

Something critical appears to be missing here. Clearly it can't be water, since that is what is contaminated with this stuff, so now what ? 

"26: In case of contact with eyes, rinse immediately with plenty of water and seek medical advice" and
 "30: Never add water to this product" also seem to be somewhat contradictory.

It is worth noting  Material Safety Data Sheets are generated by the chemical manufacturer and can vary significantly from manufacturer to manufacture for the same compound, though they usually at least attempt not to be self-contradictory. It looks like the residents of West Virginia have unwillingly become participants in an epidemiology study.

UPDATE - I  have added more information about 4-methylcyclohexane methanol at

Additional resources:  

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