West Virginia Chemical Spill Still Disrupting Local Infrastructure
Think of it as another practice run for local and federal crisis management. The chemical spill into the Elk River that breached the containment walls of one of Charleston, W.Va's largest industries last week has closed schools, stopped commercial flights and converted the state capitol's downtown core to a "ghost town." It's also painted an unnervingly clear picture of what can happen to a city's infrastructure when a chemical spill shuts down its main commercial facilities.
After evidence of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), a foaming agent that is used to clean coal of impurities, was picked up by local water distribution plant West Virginia American Water last Thursday, state and county officials went into high drive to alert some 300,0000 residents of the pollution and to close access to drinking water. Hotels shut off water and warned residents not to use tap water to drink, bathe or wash their clothes until the alert was lifted. Restaurants closed, unable to wash dishes or supply coffee. WiFi-equipped facilities, stores and commercial services lost business.
A state of emergency was declared Thursday by Gov. Earl Ray Tomlin, and the National Guard was called in immediately to assist with distributing bottled water. Following assessment by state and county authorities, President Obama issued an emergency declaration on Friday. The declaration will free up a variety of federal programs and resources to help with local needs.
But what neither the state nor federal authorities have been able to do is to return business to Charleston's otherwise active commercial core. Dining is at the heart of Charleston's tourism business, with more than a dozen restaurants centered in and around the affected area. The spill has also cut short much of the travel opportunities to the city, with hotels and bed and breakfast inns unable to provide any safe washing facilities. After the tap water ban went into effect, commercial flights were suspended temporarily due to an agreement between airlines and a flight crew union that requires certain levels of service to be available at travel destinations. Some flights have not been reinstated.
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Contaminated water image via Shutterstock.