Tainted Water

A chemical spill in West Virginia highlights the role engineers play in disasters

By Tom Gibson

In early January of 2014, Andrew Whelton, then a civil and environmental professor at the University of South Alabama, gathered some students and headed to Charleston, West Virginia to sample water at a suspected chemical leak. “Our mission was simple: to go figure out what the heck was going on and provide any support in any way we could to the community,” he recalls. “We knew there was contamination.”

Andrew Whelton’s research
focuses on plumbing systems

“We worked with a non-profit organization, and we did testing in people’s homes because nobody was doing that from the state, local, county, or federal governments. And that’s where people were being exposed to contaminated water,” Whelton adds.

Then something happened that validated Whelton’s mission. On January 9, 2014, a corroded storage tank leaked about 10,000 gallons of chemicals, including 4-MethylCycloHexane Methanol (MCHM), a chemical researchers knew little about. The spill flowed into the Elk River and downstream to a water treatment plant, prompting officials to advise 300,000 people, or 15 percent of the entire state’s population, to not drink the water. Freedom Industries was using MCHM, obtained from Eastman Chemical Company, and stripped PPH, obtained from Dow Chemical Company, mixed together to clean fines from coal.

While the chemical spill was detected on January 9, Whelton says the chemical safety board acknowledged that it likely started long before then. By the end of February, they had contained the tanks and moved liquids out.

At this point, Whelton received a National Science Foundation (NSF) rapid response research grant (RAPID), financing his research team to go door-to-door taking water samples within days of the spill. “We found the guidance issued by the water company, endorsed by the state government, that people flush their homes to rid themselves of this water, was actually not based on science or engineering,” he reports. “It was randomly generated, and in some cases, peoples’ chemical levels inside their house were higher after flushing than before they flushed.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Weidhaas, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at West Virginia University, followed a parallel path. She also received a NSF RAPID grant, and her team rushed to the spill site to collect water and soil samples from the river. “We did two types of water sampling immediately after the spill and in the weeks after the spill. We sampled both in the Elk River, but also we sampled in peoples’ homes after they were flushing the MCHM out of their taps to make sure the MCHM had been removed from their systems.”

An obligation to help
The efforts of these two engineers and educators served to showcase the role engineers and engineering schools can play in disasters. Whelton explains, “Engineers play a significant role in disaster response and recovery, and protecting public health, welfare, and safety above all is our utmost responsibility.” Weidhaas expands on this: “There was a great deal of uncertainty, both from the emergency responder side and from the public side about what was the chemical, where was it distributed, and what are the health impacts? So researchers like myself who can help answer some of those questions, ideally without getting in the way of the emergency responders, should do so, and in the immediate aftermath of these events, speed is of the essence.”

The Elk River flows 177 miles from Pocahontas County westerly to the Kanawha River at Charleston

As Weidhaas says, “WVU is a land grant institution, and part of our mission is to do research that directly benefits the state, and these are our friends and family members and alumni from our university there in Charleston. As a researcher who works in the area of water quality, it was incumbent upon us to go down and try to answer some questions to help out the citizens of our state.”

From a personal perspective, Weidhaas continues, “it was also an interesting problem. It was a completely novel compound that we didn’t know much about, and we had an opportunity to go down and answer some questions that benefit the public but also address some of the important research questions that will help us understand if there are spills in the future, how to respond appropriately to those.”

“We did involve quite a few students, both in the classroom here in Morgantown, but we also took some students down to do some sampling with us as well,” Weidhaas says. “The more you can bring into the classroom these real case studies and get them hands-on involved, the better their learning and retention of the concepts is going to be.”

Whelton worked for the U.S. Army from 2002-2005 assisting deployed units in investigating drinking water contamination in the battlefield. He is now an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University. His passion is conducting research to investigate and solve problems that affect our natural and built environments with an expertise in polymer science, analytical chemistry, food science, and nanoengineering.

Focus on plumbing systems
He also researches plumbing systems in buildings in the context of their interaction with chemical contamination, sharing his findings with public health officials and regulators as well as manufacturers and building designers. In particular, he tries to understand the degree to which spilled chemicals permeate plastic pipes in household plumbing systems to determine the effects polyethylene water pipes may have on drinking water quality.

Jennifer Weidhaas sampled water in
the Elk River and peoples’ homes

Weidhaas’ research focus includes biological, chemical and physical environmental engineering approaches, including water/wastewater treatment, hazardous waste and emerging contaminants remediation, water quality modeling and bacterial source tracking of contaminants.

Weidhaas reports, “Immediately after the spill, “In most parts of the water distribution system, contamination was below the one-milligram-per-liter level CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommended safe drinking limit, but there were some locations above that. After people flushed their water systems for 15 minutes over the ensuing few weeks, in all cases, the concentration of the MCHM in people’s water was below the limit. So while it was causing a nuisance for people in their homes, it wasn’t causing a health hazard, although additional research is ongoing from the National Institutes of Health to try to address the potential health risks from exposure to those compounds.”

“Plastic pipes, as we expected, absorbed chemicals and likely released them back into the clean drinking water after the contaminated water was flushed out of the system,” Whelton states. “If you do not understand the plumbing system, it’s not a good idea to try to predict what’s going to happen. The materials, size of the water heaters, flow regimes, the dynamics when you open single faucets versus multiple faucets all play a role.”

Several high-ranking officials of Freedom Industries suffered legal repercussions, including jail time for some. But Whelton says, “For the most part, there’s been little to no culpability associated with the overwhelming negligence and failure to operate a business in good business practices. Harm was done to more than 300,000 people in West Virginia. There were over one million people downstream on the Ohio River that had to take action, spend money, to protect their own communities from this plume of MCHM-contaminated water. The incident didn’t just affect Charleston, it affected at least four states.”

As Weidhaas puts it, “I think we’ll never really know the impact to the river. And in terms of human health, there was an uptick in people who went to the hospital.” “But I don’t know that they were able to definitively prove that it was linked to the MCHM spill. But that’s for the courts to decide. But certainly there were economic impacts, and there was a public health perception impact. People no longer trusted their water, so there was a loss of faith in the water utility. Businesses lost money. Even to this day, Charleston is still known as a place with contaminated water.”


Based in Milton, PA, Tom Gibson, P.E. is editor and publisher of Progressive Engineer, an online magazine and information source (www.ProgressiveEngineer.com).

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