Is the Water Safe? The West Virginia Chemical Spill and the Importance of Scientists’ Speaking to the Media

January 21, 2014
Gretchen Goldman
Research Director, Center for Science & Democracy

When news broke last week that West Virginia’s Elk River had been contaminated with the coal-processing chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), attention quickly turned to the scientists who could help the public understand what was at stake. With the spill just upstream of a treatment plant supplying water to 300,000 West Virginians, the questions were pressing: What was known about MCHM? Is my health and that of my family and pets at risk? Should I worry about the odor? These questions and many more arose from citizens, reporters, and decision makers. But as the event unfolded, we saw that scientists weren’t always given a chance to answer them.

When the spill happened, scientists and other technical experts worked quickly to understand what public health risks were posed by the release. Scientists working for industry, West Virginia health and environmental agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scrambled to assess what we knew about this chemical.

The Elk River in West Virginia serves as a drinking water source for 9 counties. After the chemical spill, affected citizens looked to scientists and government officials to know what public health risks they faced. Photo: Flickr/Vicky TGAW

The Elk River in West Virginia serves as a drinking water source for nine counties. After the chemical spill, affected citizens looked to scientists and government officials to know what public health risks they faced. Photo: Flickr/Vicky TGAW

But conflicting messages between officials at these different institutions over time, led to stress, confusion, and fear for many in affected areas. West Virginia residents were told their water was safe to drink, only to subsequently be told by state health officials that pregnant women should drink bottled water. Citizens were told by West Virginia officials and West Virginia American Water that there was no concern about odor, but later learned that the CDC had advised flushing plumbing sources until the chemical odor could no longer be detected.

Some reporters worked to figure out what went wrong. Why the conflicting messages? Some scientific experts reported that scientists never knew much about the chemical and there were lots of uncertainties in the health risk assessment. But why hadn’t the public heard this message from the start?

In times of emergencies — especially when the public health and safety may be at risk — it is essential that we let scientists speak. In situations like these, accurate and timely information needs to get to the public and allowing scientists to speak to the media without prior clearance from public affairs or other officials can allow for more comprehensive information to reach those who need it. Public affairs officers can play a coordinating role and can be informed of scientists’ communication to the media and public, but they should not act as gatekeepers that compromise our ability to understand the threats that citizens face.

To be fair, we also need to make sure a clear and consistent message gets out. Conflicting instructions during emergency response can hamper response and confuse the public. But when it comes to health and safety, we need to make sure that people hear from the experts. In this case, hearing from more experts might have prevented much of the confusion, fear, and distrust that we say in the chemical spill’s aftermath.

UCS has worked for many years to ensure that scientists, especially those at federal agencies, can speak to the media and the public. We’ve worked to improve agency communications policies and social media policies, and to change agency culture such that the default is openness, rather than closing ranks. Many times the impact of transparency seems intangible, but the events of the past two weeks illustrate just how much it matters. Scientists need the freedom to share both what they know and what they don’t know as soon as they are asked. Their expertise is vital in the case of West Virginia chemical spill and for science-based issues everywhere.