Responding to the Elk River Chemical Spill

Submitted By

Rahul Gupta, MD, MPH, FACP
Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, West Virginia
May 12, 2014

The Jan. 9, 2014 Elk River, West Virginia chemical spill has been one of the most challenging U.S. environmental health emergencies. The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department played an integral role working with many stakeholders in responding to the disaster while providing important information to the public.

The Jan. 9, 2014 Elk River, West Virginia chemical spill has been one of the most challenging U.S. environmental health emergencies. The Freedom Industries spill poured 10,000 gallons of toxic crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol and significant quantities of polyglycol ether into one of West Virginia’s most important sources of public drinking water, leaving 300,000 people without drinking water. The major challenge in the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s response was the difficulty in obtaining accurate and timely information from state and federal-level stakeholders. As the level of government most proximate to the people, we enjoy a deep level of trust with our communities, and they expected us to immediately and transparently communicate any developments. We were also in the uncomfortable position of explaining to our constituents a number of conflicting statements from the various entities involved about the safety of the water for drinking and general usage. For example, there were times when the water was declared safe for everyone, yet two days later guidance changed for pregnant women. Similarly, well over a week after the water was declared safe, it was revealed that there were more chemicals that had leaked in the original spill and had not been tested for. We also had numerous challenges in encouraging state and federal agencies to develop the science to support our assertions along the way, which compounded our difficulties explaining conflicting reports to a confused and increasingly frustrated public.

As a regulator of permitted facilities such as restaurants, bars, schools, and several other public buildings and private businesses, it was the responsibility of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to ensure that these facilities were shut down immediately upon the issuance of the unprecedented “do not use” order for drinking water by Governor Tomblin and subsequently opened in the proper, orderly and timely manner without compromising public safety when deemed appropriate. The Department also served as a water distribution site, an organizer for such events, and played a critical role in ensuring the delivery of the water to special needs populations. We also actively worked with Metro 911 to provide technical and subject matter assistance for the various local emergency management agencies. In attempting to recover, we have worked with a wide list of local, state, federal, and private organizations to coordinate our response. These include, but are not limited to, the Kanawha-Charleston Board of Health, Kanawha County Emergency Management, the Mayor of Charleston, City of Charleston Emergency Management, other local health departments, the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources, the National Guard, the Governor’s office, state legislature, the West Virginia Poison Control Center, and the offices of our U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives. Since these kinds of emergencies happen rarely, many of my closest partnerships were developed out of necessity during our response. In an unprecedented measure, Governor Tomblin ordered the National Guard to assist the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to respond to this public health emergency. For days, 40-50 National Guard troops assisted our health department staff in reopening schools, businesses, and other establishments across the county.

I spoke at length about our response challenges in several official testimonies to the state legislature, and multiple provisions have been since added to Senate Bill 373 (SB 373), a bill recently signed into law by Governor Tomblin which aims at rectifying problems identified by the Freedom Industries spill. Added for the first time in the bill was the ability for a nationally accredited local health department in our state to review and monitor compliance with a source water protection plan. Yet the regulatory fixes in SB 373 are problematic since they do not come with additional funding for monitoring the health effects. This means that we are finding ourselves in a never-ending response mode. SB 373 was a good start at the state level, but West Virginia still needs to adopt the 2011 recommendations made by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. I am a member of a Federal Advisory Panel convened by Senator Manchin to help introduce new legislative solutions at the federal level in the United States Congress. However, it is important to emphasize that this particular event has brought forth two important national issues of public health significance which are not only limited to West Virginia: Drinking water protections and reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Public health agencies and organizations need to better understand and assist in shaping legislation and policies on both of these fronts.

It was clear from the very beginning of our response that we need to dramatically re-think our communication protocols going forward. We first learned of the chemical spill from media reports and widespread public complaints; it is especially difficult to provide accurate and timely information to our constituents when we are learning of an event for the first time through the same sources and channels that they are. We have since been successful in having included provisions in the current law that mandate enhanced communication protocols across agencies. As a general take away, local public health must always make its decisions based on good science, and not be afraid to be upfront and honest when adequate science is unavailable. I also believe that additional staff training and education are needed in several areas, including the psychological aspects of emergency response, and the use of social media, including best practices in times of an emergency. This crisis has made it more apparent that it is crucial to continuously earn and maintain the public’s trust and confidence. We at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department have been fortunate to be considered one of the most trusted public agencies during this crisis, and our constituents have had a significant amount of faith and trust in the information and guidance which we have provided them with.

Photo credit: Craig Cunningham, Charleston Daily Mail

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