The Elk River MCHM spill: A case study on managing environmental risks


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Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration


On January 9, 2014, a large chemical spill occurred on the bank of the Elk River near Charleston, WV. Within hours, the potable water supply for more than 300,000 people was contaminated, and the incident captured national headlines for weeks. Although the primary chemical, crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, is considered nonhazardous, the impacts of the spill are significant – with all stakeholders, including the public, members of industry, and relevant government agencies experiencing losses. More than a year later, this case continues to garner significant attention, with many still questioning just how it could have happened given the complex regulatory system in the US. In retrospect, the Elk River spill highlights the need for a more proactive approach to environmental protection, shifting from prescriptive regulation to comprehensive risk management. The lessons learned are particularly important for “gray” areas within regulatory framework, such as the vast area of nonhazardous chemicals.