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MCHM detected at three coal preparation plants

The same chemical that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians has shown up again, this time in the discharged materials from three coal preparation plants in the state.

In each case, the stream that receives the discharge eventually supply a water utility. One discharge is just two miles from an intake, while the others are roughly 25 miles from the nearest drinking water source.

The state Department of Environmental Protection was quick to point out it could not find any trace of the chemical immediately downstream from the facilities’ discharge pipes. The operators of two of the sites said they stopped using the product in February.

The three sites used the chemical as a coal cleaning agent for a combined 20 years, and there remains little information as to how it affects the health of people who come into contact with it.

“We’re back into unknown territory,” said Richard Denison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who has closely followed the response to the Freedom Industries chemical leak.

“Because there is no chronic toxicity data for this chemical, we really don’t have any way of judging what would be routine exposure over a long period of time.”

On Jan. 9 state officials discovered thousands of gallons of crude MCHM and other chemicals leaking from a faulty storage facility into the Elk River. An unknown amount overwhelmed the water treatment facility about 1.5 miles downstream, leading to a do-not-use order covering a nine-county region.

Within days the DEP started testing discharges from sites preparing coal with MCMH, a chemical used to clean unwanted particles from coal. There are 32 such sites in the state that list storing MCHM, with 25 actually using the chemical, DEP spokesman Tom Aluise said.

The DEP tested the discharge at each site, and was able to detect MCHM in discharges at three locations: Delbarton Mining in Mingo County, Wolfrun Mining in Barbour County and Marfork Coal near the border of Boone and Raleigh counties. The Delbarton discharge first tested at nearly 1 part per million, said Harold Ward, acting director of the DEP’s Division of Mining and Reclamation. They tested the discharge again, this time detecting a 1.4 parts per million concentration.

In subsequent tests of Pigeon Creek, the DEP used a method capable of detecting MCHM at any amount greater than 5 parts per billion but found no trace of it.

“We tested down far enough that when we got the result we were comfortable that there was no way it was getting to the Kermit intake,” Ward said in an April interview.

Pigeon Creek flows in the Tug Fork River. There’s a public water intake on the Tug Fork River a little more than 20 miles from the discharge site on Pigeon Creek, Ward said.

The DEP took three samples from the creek, each sample further down from the discharge. Ward and Kelley Gillenwater, a DEP spokeswoman, said the testing was “comprehensive.”

DEP tests found concentrations of 126 parts per billion at Wolfrun Mining and 35 parts per billion at Marfork Coal. Wolfrun discharges into Hackers Creek, which flows into the Tygart River. The discharge site is about 23 miles upstream from a public water intake, Ward said.

The Whitesville public water intake is less than 2 miles from where Marfork discharges into the Coal River, Ward said.

Ward and Gillenwater said they did not tell any of the potentially affected water utilities about the test results it received, and did not test any of the water at the actual intake for the water treatment facility.

Both Gillenwater and Ward said they would have notified the treatment facilities had any of the DEP tests in the receiving streams detected any amount of the chemical.

Boone County Health Department Office Manager Mike Vickers, who has been with the department more than 17 years, said he’s never heard of complaints about water in Whitesville smelling like licorice, or any other problems. MCHM has a distinct licorice odor.

Repeated attempts to reach local health or water utility officials in Mingo County or Taylor County were unsuccessful.

Gillenwater and Ward also pointed out most detection amount were below the 1 parts per million short-term screening level established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Representatives from Alpha Natural Resources, which operates the Delbarton plant, and Arch Coal, which operates the Wolfrun facility, also pointed to the CDC’s screening level.

The level, established in the wake of the MCHM leak into the Elk River, has faced considerable scrutiny. The CDC recently said the level only accounts for consumption of water during a time span that’s less than 14 days. After the spill hundreds of people complained of skin irritation and breathing issues they believed were caused by contact with contaminated water or inhaling contaminated water vapor.

More recently, a team of independent scientists determined that an average exposure to 120 parts per billion or less of MCHM per day for 28 days was unlikely to cause negative health effects. The West Virginia Testing Assessment Project relied on similar studies as the CDC, but used slightly factor in order to reach the more stringent conclusion, according to the final report from an April health panel.

Neither is a good indicator for possible health affects from exposure over a long period of time, said Professor Andrew Whelton, one of the WV TAP team leaders.

“There is no chronic value,” said Whelton, adding he was very happy the DEP did any testing of discharges from other sites after the chemical leak.

“Determining the long term chemical exposure risk simply hasn’t been done.”

Denison agreed. Exposure to small amounts of a chemical over a long period of time could have negative health effects not seen from exposure to larger amounts of the chemical in a short period of time, he explained.

Denison used alcohol consumption as an example. Someone could drink lots of booze in a weekend and suffer little more than a hangover, but continued consumption of less alcohol over many years can have obvious poor health effects.

“Detox mechanisms that our body has naturally might not be able to handle continuous or long-term exposure as well as they could in short term exposure,” Denison said.

“And moreover, you might well be seeing types of effects through long-term exposure that you wouldn’t see in short-term exposure.”

Delbarton used MCHM from February 2002 until this February. Wolfrun stopped using it this February as well, after it started using the product in March 2012. Marfork started using the chemical in 2007 and hasn’t stopped, according to the DEP.

The facilities are supposed to regularly test the materials in their discharge, but those tests do not look for MCHM, Gillenwater confirmed.

Arch representative Kim Link said it stopped using MCHM at Wolfrun, and all of its sites, as “part of a larger, uniform sourcing standard implemented across all our operations.” She said sourcing equals purchasing, but didn’t elaborate further.

Alpha spokesman Ted Pile said they stopped using MCHM at Delbarton “at the recommendation of West Virginia DEP officials even though we believe there was absolutely no public health risk caused by the use of MCHM.” Gillenwater denied anyone with the DEP “in an official capacity” told Delbarton it should stop using the chemical.

“Someone from DEP may have pointed out, however, that there is a heightened public sensitivity regarding the use of that chemical,” she said.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources and its Bureau for Public Health were tasked with exploring the possibility of long-term monitoring of people exposed to the chemical after the recent leak. Right now there’s very little data about short term health effects from MCHM and no data about long term health effects.

A state legislative committee is supposed to get an update tomorrow from the DEP about implementation of the law passed in the wake of the leak. The meeting is scheduled for 2 pm at the Capitol.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at

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