MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Almost a month after the chemical leak on the Elk River that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians, there is still a lot federal, state and other officials do not know about crude MCHM, the coal processing chemical that was part of the mixture stored in a faulty tank at Freedom Industries.
“We don’t have all the information that we need about chemicals that we commonly use for industry applications (like MCHM) and I think another serious problem is that we’re not very proactive about protecting our waterways for all their multiple uses,” said Andrea Dietrich, a professor at Virginia Tech.
The National Science Foundation has provided $150,000 in total emergency grant funding for Dietrich and other scientists to look into the aftermath of the Jan. 9 leak at Freedom Industries in Charleston which contaminated the tap water for 300,000 West Virginians.
In the coming year, Dietrich, who is an environmental engineer, and her team will be specifically studying the physical and chemical behavior of MCHM in the environment in Kanawha County and parts of eight other counties in the affected region.
“The data we will generate will certainly directly address the fate and transport in the water system. It will help the toxicologists and the health people to understand some of the health effects,” said Dietrich.
At the same time, Andrew Whelton of the University of South Alabama and his team will study the chemical’s absorption into plastic drinking-water pipes in houses to determine if the flushing process West Virginia American Water Company established was adequate.
Jennifer Weidhass with West Virginia University and her team have already started water quality tests to assess the extent of any contamination in the drinking water and at the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant.
“This is one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century,” said William Cooper, program director for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems. “In instances such as this, where the situation is still developing and public health is involved, timing is everything.”
Dietrich agreed. “Drinking water is an essential product that people need every day in their lives and we have to make sure that we’re protecting water resources from unwanted contamination,” she said on Monday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”