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WV Water Research Institute Director Explains Chemical

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West Virginia Water Research Institute Director Paul Ziemkiewicz provided as much information as he could about 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, the chemical that leaked from a tanker at Freedom Industries in Charleston Jan. 10 and left 100,000 customers in nine Southern West Virginia counties.

Ziemkiewicz said there is not a lot of information available about the chemical's toxicity.

"These are in a class called ‘organic compounds,' that's anything with carbons in it," he explained. "They become extremely complex, and there are a zillion variations on various compounds.

"A lot of them haven't been particularly well-classified, and they're used in relatively small quantities in the prep plant, so any time you'd see a high concentration is where they're actually stored for transport to the marketplace, and that would be a facility like this."

Ziemkiewicz said the chemical is known as an irritant.

He said based on estimates that between 2,000 and 3,000 gallons leaked into the river throughout the course of an hour, he said judging by the Jan. 9 flow rate of both the Elk River and the Kanawha River, if the chemical was in its purest form, it would have amounted to 41 milligrams per liter in the Elk River and six milligrams per liter in the Kanawha River.

Ziemkiewicz said the only toxicity data he's been able to find about the chemical is about the non-alcohol form of it — 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, the specific chemical that leaked into the Elk River, has an alcohol stuck to it — but it would take thousands of gallons of water containing the chemical to reach a lethal dosage, which has only been tested on mice.

"The point I'm trying to make is you'd need a lot of it to get into the lethal category," he said. "But it is a skin irritant, so if you're taking a shower in this stuff or breathing it in, it could be a lung irritant, so that's the concern."

Ziemkiewicz works with a staff of 13 as well as West Virginia University's faculty and the faculty at other universities that range from local and regional to national and international in scope. Some of the institute's major programs include mine drainage, watershed management, biofuels, industrial site restoration and treatment of drilling brines.

"The other thing about the chemical, being an alcohol, it's very water soluble, so it's going to stay in the water," he said. "It wouldn't form a sheen on top of the water like an oil would."

Ziemkiewicz further explained that the chemical is used in coal preparation plants.

"You add it to the process of separating coal from impurities like rock and coal particles," he said. "That allows you to float the coal away and get a more pure product."