DEP: Testing reveals MCHM traces leaving 3 coal facilities - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

DEP: Testing reveals MCHM traces leaving 3 coal facilities

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CHARLESTON, WV - Greg Branch sits on his porch in Delbarton, miles removed from the Elk River. While the water crisis was a reality for some, it's a distant thought for Branch.

"It's like, 'That was too close to home. But it will never happen to us,'" said Branch, a former coal miner. "It was always that attitude, it will never get here. It's always somewhere else."

Little did he know, the heart of the issue hits a little closer to home.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection found traces of MCHM near Branch's home in Delbarton. MCHM is a material used to wash coal.

"I didn't know that, I'm sure people around here doesn't know that," Branch said.

Environmental regulators sampled water near coal facilities throughout West Virginia after they discovered a chemical leak at Freedom Industries Jan. 9. They tested for MCHM, the same chemical that leaked from a storage tank earlier this year.

"We were aware there was a lot of heightened sensitivity to it so that's the primary reason we wanted to provide answers, if asked," said Harold Ward, the acting director for the WVDEP Division of Mining Reclamation.

Of the more than 20 sites inspectors visited, they found MCHM leaving three facilities: Wolf Run Mining Company in Philippi, Marfork Coal Company Inc., in Pettus, and Delbarton Mining Company in Delbarton, which empties treated wastewater into Pigeon Creek.

The agency reviewed information from more than 90 coal facilities throughout the Mountain State, according to an e-mail from Kelley Gillenwater, a WVDEP spokesperson. Ward said between 20 and 30 sites disclosed used MCHM.

On February 10, samples indicated wastewater leaving the Delbarton Mining Company registered at 1.4 parts per million. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have repeatedly said the water is "appropriate" to use at 1 ppm.

Ward said the levels could not be detected when they drew samples on at least three later occasions.

"We tested everything we could above any public water intake, so there was no trace amounts even going to the public intake even from a mining operation."

The nearest public water intake on Pigeon Creek is thirty miles away in Kermit, according to Ward. Another facility sat approximately 20 miles from the nearest intake, while the third is situated less than 2 miles upstream of an intake.

The agency tested the water from the pipe discharging into the nearest waterway. Samples at Marfork showed MCHM present at 0.035 parts per million; Wolfrun testing in the same location revealed MCHM present at 0.126 parts per million.

"Additional sampling in stream, below the outfall, showed non-detect levels of MCHM," Gillenwater wrote, in reference to both Marfork and Wolf Run.

But others say they're worried by these results.

"My opinion is it's all around us because this isn't an accident," said Kevin Thompson, a Charleston-based attorney.

After the leak, Thompson filed a lawsuit against the chemical's manufacturer, Eastman, among other entities and individuals. Federal law fails to regulate MCHM, or how much companies can discharge into waterways.

"We will petition the EPA and the federal court under three laws," Thompson said. He hopes MCHM can one day be regulated by the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The DEP said Wolf Run and Delbarton Mining Company recently stopped using MCHM.

"They primarily didn't want to be associated with the product," Ward said. "I wouldn't want to be associated with the product if I was running a mine site."

Alpha Natural Resources, which operates Delbarton Mining Company, confirmed the agency's statement.

"A couple weeks after the Freedom spill the WVDEP asked us to switch frothing agents at the Delbarton plant after doing some sampling there," wrote Alpha spokesman Ted Pile in an e-mail. "We made that switch in February to an agent that didn't have MCHM in the blend, even though we used MCHM to begin with because it was touted to be biodegradable and environmentally friendly."

Pile added that some facilities still use MCHM in "varying" but "usually" small concentrations. He emphasized that later testing in the same location showed non-detectable levels of MCHM.

Attempts to reach Arch Coal, the company that operates Wolf Run, were unsuccessful Thursday evening.