4. Listen to the public’s questions and
work to answer those questions.
The majority of those affected are not
responding. They want to return to
what they like doing for a living. Their
questions are likely providing insight
that responders may not have (e.g.,
5. Test at the exposure locations. Your
population is living the incident
inside their homes. Do not only test
at fire hydrants and storage tanks;
few people drink or bathe at those
locations. Go inside homes. Plumbing
systems differ greatly from buried
water distribution networks.
6. Assume government agency advice
is incomplete or wrong. No agency
took issue with flushing chemically
contaminated water into resident
homes. One agency claimed chemicals
would not stick to plastic plumbing
pipes, but referenced one of their
own studies where plastic plumbing
drinking water pipes were not tested.
There were many more examples.
7. Obtain data needed to make system
recovery decisions by conducting
rapid field and lab tests. Conduct
pilot testing in several buildings or
small beakers to determine if there
are any unanticipated issues with the
8. Ask for technical assistance from
specialized individuals outside
the government. Drinking water
disasters are specialized crises. People
providing help should have specific
experience and training, not simply an
Andrew J. Whelton, Ph.D., is assistant
professor of civil, environmental, and
ecological engineering at Purdue University
( email@example.com). Learn more
at www.southce.org/ajwhelton. Rahul
Gupta, M.D., M.P.H., is the executive
director of the Kanawha-Charleston health
department and faculty member at WVU
and University of Charleston.
In January 2014, a chemical storage tank leaked an
estimated 10,000 gallons
of the industrial solvent
Crude MCHM into West
Virginia’s Elk River. This
river was the region’s only
drinking water source and
supplied West Virginia’s
state capital, Charleston.
tap water, with an intense
black licorice odor, was
then distributed to 300,000
people across a nine county
area, affecting 15% of the state’s population.
An unprecedented Do Not Use tap water
order was issued by the water company
because of the tap water’s unknown toxicity.
Little to no toxicological data was available
for many of Crude MCHM’s ingredients.
Only toilet flushing and firefighting were
permitted. This event occurred during the
first week of the legislative session, when
many representatives, lobbyists, families,
and their friends were in the capital.
Basic tap water activities such as showering, bathing, cooking, and baby-formula
creation could not be carried out for up to
10 days. Some residents drove 60 miles to
shower, others bought camping showers,
used rain water, bathed in bottled water,
and used plastic storage tubs for bathing
their children. In the dead of winter, schools
shutdown for more than three weeks.
Restaurants closed. Hospitals, nursing
homes, and other critical care facilities
switched to emergency supplies and had
water trucked in. Surgeries were postponed.
Through research collaboration, Rahul
Gupta, M.D., of the local health department,
and my university team estimated 90,000
people experienced acute health impacts,
including rashes, nausea, vomiting, and inhalation issues. Marshall University estimated
that the economic impact of this event on the
state was $61 million during the first month.
Plumbing system flushing was recommended
in an effort to purge contaminated tap water
and resulted in residents being chemically
exposed to vapors emitted in their homes.
Contaminated tap water, by flushing affected
water infrastructure, was discharged to
waterways, storm drains, septic tanks, and
the sanitary sewer system. A month after the
incident, it was discovered that the water
plant filters were contaminated and tap water
with Crude MCHM remnants was still being
distributed to the population. While chemical
levels found leaving the water plant were
below those deemed safe by the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, the absence
of chronic toxicity data for this solvent still
raises questions. The failure of storage tanks
and a containment wall directly impacted
public welfare and safety.
Initially unfunded, we received funding
from the National Science Foundation, and
West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin
called on us to assist the state investigation.
With Corona Environmental Consulting, we
assembled an international team of experts.
While the state-funded project has ended,
our NSF-funded work continues today.
Having been directly involved in this
incident response and recovery since
January, I believe engineers within munici-palities, states, and utilities should be
aware of a few lessons learned.
1. Assume the initial information is
wrong. The spill volume was revised
from 2,500 gallons multiple times
to ultimately 10,000. Days after
residents were directed to flush their
plumbing systems the company that
spilled the chemical surprisingly
disclosed more chemicals were
present than initially reported.
2. Use multiple laboratories for sample
characterization, split samples, and
archive some, too. Sampling data is
critically important. Multiple laboratories
lessen the chance that the data you are
relying on is wrong. This approach also
helps identify when laboratories cannot
do what they claim to deliver.
3. Test for chemicals to the lowest level
possible. The public wants to know
if the chemicals are gone, not “
non-detect.” As state of the art testing
limits improve during the incident, use
the lower limits.
What We’ve Learned From the West Virginia Water Crisis
BY ANDREW J. WHELTON, PH.D. AND RAHUL GUPTA, M.D., M.P.H.