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 200,000 people without drinking water in West Virginia on Friday? The leak from a 48,000-gallon tank contained a compound called 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol which Freedom Industries uses to treat coal.
4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol is 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 percent methyl 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 Methanol was patented in 1989. Ironically, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol was considered a big improvement over the floating agents used at the time because they were much more hazardous.
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: