What is the chemical that just contaminated West Virginia’s drinking water?

by Claudette Juska

January 10, 2014

Coal Mine Infrastructure

Coal separated from spoil pours off a conveyor belt at a processing plant.

© Les Stone / Greenpeace

A state of emergency has been declared in West Virginia after a chemical spill from Freedom Industries, a Charleston-based chemical company, contaminated the drinking water of 9 counties in the state.

So just what was the chemical that left nearly 300,000 people without drinking water in West Virginia on Friday? Theleak from a48,000-gallon tank contained a compound called 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol which Freedom Industries uses to treat coal.

Where to find clean water in West Virginia

4-Methylcyclohexane Methanolis used in “coal flotation”, a process designed to “clean” coal. It is a process in which the combustible portions of coal are separated from the non-combustible or waste portions (ash). Basically4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol is mixed with water (roughly 96 percent water, 4 percentmethyl cyclohexane). Coal pieces are first crushed to a consistent, small size and then put into this mixture. The coal adheres differently to the mixture than the ash. Coal essentially floats to the surface where it can be collected then dried. The rest is waste. This process is used because it increases the heat value of the coal, making the coal burning process more efficient.

Coal flotation using 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanolwas patented in 1989. Ironically, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanolwas considered a big improvement over the floating agents used at the time because they were much more hazardous.

Find out more.

Residents started noticing the licorice smell from the spill on Thursday which leaked into the Elk River flowing into the Kanawha River in Charleston. Officials have no information on when residents can use their water again.

Freedom Industries owns the leaking chemical storage tank and released the following statement:

Since the discovery of the leak, safety for residents in Kanawha and surrounding counties has been Freedom Industries first priority. We have been working with local and federal regulatory, safety and environmental entities, including the DEP, Coast Guard, Army Corp of Engineers and Homeland Security, and are following all necessary steps to fix the issue. Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination. At this point, Freedom Industries is still working to determine the amountof 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in processing coal, that has been released, as the first priority was safety, containment and cleanup.

Freedom Industries is in the process of setting up an Incident Command Center on site. As more factual information is made available, we will keep you updated.

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