W.Va. Chemical Spill Poses a New Test for Lawmakers
17 January 2014
By Joel Achenbach
There are more than 80,000 chemicals in the United States
catalogued by government regulators, and the health risks of most
of them are unknown.
This became glaringly obvious when, on Jan. 9, a clear,
licorice-smelling chemical leaked from an old storage tank into
the Elk River in West Virginia, contaminating the drinking water
for much of the state, including the capital, Charleston.
What made the spill alarming was not just the reports of rashes,
stomachaches and other ailments but the paucity of information
about the potential toxicity of Crude MCHM, which is primarily
composed of a chemical named 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.
The 15-page material safety data sheet for the chemical, which is
manufactured by Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical, uses the phrase
“no data available” 152 times.
So sketchy is the public health system’s understanding of the
chemical’s toxicity that officials wound up backtracking on
whether it was safe for everyone to start drinking water again
after the do-not-use order was lifted in West Virginia last week.
- Repeated dose toxicity: “No data available.”
- Carcinogenicity: “No data available.”
- Reproductive toxicity: “No data available.”
- Specific target organ toxicity, repeated exposure: “No
At first, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that
the water would be safe if it had less than 1 part per million of
Crude MCHM. But then on Wednesday, the state Department of Health
and Human Resources, after consulting with the CDC, said pregnant
women shouldn’t drink the water until officials declare it free of
any trace of the chemical.
“There are extraordinary gaps in knowledge,” said Daniel Horowitz,
managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an
independent agency that investigates industrial accidents. Of the
West Virginia case, he said: “There are so many chemicals around,
and in most cases the toxicology is not complete.”
Chemicals in the United States are generally treated as innocent
until proven guilty. A company does not have to prove that a
chemical does not pose a health hazard in order to introduce it in
the commercial market.
Maranda Demuth, a spokeswoman for Eastman Chemical, said that the
company “goes to great lengths to ensure our commercial products
and facilities meet or exceed regulatory standards.”
U.S. law, though, did not require Eastman to test Crude MCHM. The
company voluntarily conducted 18 toxicity tests on the product and
its major component. Demuth played down the significance of the
“no data available” entries on the data sheet, noting that nine of
the 152 such entries refer to water, which is harmless. She said
that the company abides by the European Union’s strict
requirements for toxicity disclosure and that had the company
followed the U.S. standard, it wouldn’t have included the “no
It has been 38 years since Congress passed a major piece of
legislation regulating toxic chemicals, even though there is no
disagreement that the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA, or
Tosca) needs an overhaul.
Two senators, the late Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and David
Vitter (R-La.), introduced an industry-friendly bill last year
called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act. Lautenberg died just
days later, and the bill has been mired in a Senate committee. A
House subcommittee has held hearings on chemical safety and is
crafting a bill similar to the Senate’s.
The Senate bill is opposed by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a
coalition of environmental, labor and public health organizations.
What happened in West Virginia is a scandal, said Andy Igrejas,
national campaign director for the group, and “the second scandal
is that the reform that’s on the table now would do almost nothing
to change that situation.”
The new act would separate chemicals into two categories, high and
low priority, and the Environmental Protection Agency would be
allowed to conduct tests on only the high-priority chemicals.
States would have to follow the federal lead — a one-size-fits-all
approach that the industry favors.
But the chemicals would be categorized according to the hazards
they pose if used properly for their intended industrial purposes.
As Demuth, the Eastman Chemical spokeswoman, noted: “Eastman
tested the mixture Crude MCHM for its intended use as an
industrial chemical in a controlled industrial environment using a
variety of toxicity tests.”
Crude MCHM would probably be considered a low-priority chemical by
the EPA, said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat
on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The EPA would then be
prohibited from subjecting the chemical to further tests, he said.
“That is a recipe for new regulatory and knowledge gaps that could
prove just as harmful as the ones we’re facing in West Virginia,”
But Charlotte Baker, spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce
Committee, said the two-tiered approach is sensible: “Of the
thousands of chemicals out there, we need to focus on the ones
that present the most risk.”
Anne Kolton, vice president of communications for the American
Chemistry Council, the industry’s lobbying arm, said chemical
manufacturers favor the Senate overhaul bill.
“It would make more information available to the public,” she
said. “And it would enhance coordination between federal and state
Angela Logomasini, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise
Institute, a free-market think tank, said: “I don’t think that
more regulations are going to make us safer. The key is
controlling exposure, because that’s where the real risk is.”
Several Democrats in the Senate, including Joe Manchin III of West
Virginia, announced Friday that they’re crafting a bill that would
improve inspections of chemical storage sites and require the
industry to develop emergency-response plans.
Most chemical regulations are enforced at the state level, where
levels of enforcement vary. West Virginia is viewed by activists
as a state with lax enforcement, but it’s not the only one with
chemical safety concerns.
Noah Sachs, professor of law and director of the Center for
Environmental Studies at the University of Richmond, said Virginia
does a poor job of monitoring potentially hazardous chemicals, and
lawmakers haven’t paid enough attention to the problem.
“We’ve got a whole suite of toxic chemical problems,” Sachs said.
A new report he prepared says that in 2011, companies released
39.23 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water and
land of Virginia — legally in most cases.
“We are exposed to a constant barrage of chemicals, both from air
pollution and water pollution,” Sachs said. “We should be worried
that Virginia has fish consumption advisories for all the major
rivers. We should be worried that people in Fairfax and Arlington
in Northern Virginia are breathing air that doesn’t meet federal
air quality standards.”
Chemical safety is not a West Virginia problem, it’s a national
problem, said Devra Davis, a founding member of the U.S. Chemical
Safety Board and now president of the Environmental Health Trust,
a nonprofit group.
“It would be farcical were it not so grave. This is a huge
threat,” she said. “In a sense, we all live downstream now.”