Much of West Virginia is still reeling after a ruptured storage tank owned by Freedom Industries leaked chemicals into the Elk River, leaving 300,000 residents in Kanawha Valley without water service. Even now, local residents in many parts of the state are getting confusing and contradictory guidance about water safety, leading to, among other things, school closings.
The last thing West Virginia needed was another spill, but that’s precisely what it got today.
More than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry poured into an eastern Kanawha County stream Tuesday in what officials were calling a “significant spill” from a Patriot Coal processing facility.
Emergency officials and environmental inspectors said that roughly six miles of Fields Creek had been blackened and that a smaller amount of the slurry made it into the Kanawha River near Chesapeake.
Locals were initially told that a slurry line ruptured between a preparation plant and a refuse impoundment facility at Patriot Coal – yes, you read that right, we’ve gone from an incident at “Freedom Industries” to one at “Patriot Coal” – but state officials later said the spill was “caused by a malfunction of a valve inside the slurry line carrying material from the preparation plant to a separate disposal site, not to an impoundment.”
Either way, Harold Ward, acting director of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Mining and Reclamation, told reporters, “There has been a significant environmental impact.”
At least of this afternoon, the company that manages the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant released a statement saying that the latest leak would not affect the public water supply.
In the meantime, federal lawmakers from West Virginia organized a field hearing yesterday morning morning on the safety of the drinking water supply in the wake of last month’s leak. One of the central questions was quite straightforward: is the water safe for residents to drink?
Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, dodged. Water companies do not set safety standards, McIntyre said. They just follow them, and West Virginia American is “in compliance with all the standards.”
Asked the same question, Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, weaved.
“That’s in a way a difficult thing to say, because everybody has a different definition of safe,” Tierney said.
That’s a sentiment that will no doubt calm nerves throughout the area, right?
* Correction: The congressional field hearing was yesterday, not today. The text has been corrected.
UPDATE: Related video: