On Jan. 9, a coal-mining chemical supplier called Freedom Industries experienced a leak of crude methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), a coal-cleaning substance, into the Elk River and affecting nine counties’ water supply. About 300,000 West Virginians lost water, and 300 required medical help for issues believed to be the result of drinking the contaminated water. The material safety data sheet (MSDS) for MCHM describes stomach upset, headache, and eye and skin irritation as the primary effects on exposed humans.
Shortly after the spill, Freedom Industries declared bankruptcy as a strategy to avoid the liability suits filed against them.
But to further muddy the water, Freedom Industries revealed on Jan. 21 that an additional toxic chemical known as PPH was also present in the spill. The reveal made for a twofold unwelcome surprise; not only is another chemical present in the Elk River, but Freedom Industries is also not legally obligated to inform state authorities of what exactly PPH is because of proprietary reasons–that is, its recipe is a “trade secret.” No new health concerns have been reported, however, suggesting PPH is no more toxic than MHCM in the eyes of the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
The MSDS for MCHM is an incomplete one, leaving state authorities unsure of how to remove the chemical from Elk River safely. Their struggle is now even more trying as the mystery that is PPH runs through the water as well. So far, miles of water lines have been flushed with no estimated timetable for when the water will be safe again.
Senior Michael LaCagnin, a northern West Virginia native, stated that the situation “made me think about if something like this happened on a larger scale and how people would act and react. It’s kind of scary in my opinion.” He added, “the company isn’t being totally forthcoming about what exactly the chemical compound is, which is weird as well.”
LaCagnin is not the only one who finds the company’s actions suspicious. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston is currently conducting a criminal investigation of Freedom Industries, hoping to create a leak in their secretive practices.