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National Science Foundation Awards Grants for Study of WV Chemical Spill

Jan 31, 2014

The National Science Foundation (NSF) just announced that it has awarded three Rapid Response Research Grants—known as RAPID grants—to research teams at three universities. The grants have been awarded so that the properties of the chemical that contaminated West Virginia’s Elk River may be better understood.

On January 9th, a chemical spill into the Elk River crippled the water supply to 300,000 West Virginia residents for days. The chemical, a coal cleanser and frothing agent known both as Crude MCHM and crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) leaked from a storage tank located near Charleston, West Virginia and bled into the river upstream of a water treatment plant.

Because little is known about MCHM—specifically, researchers do not understand how the chemical interacts with other substances—authorities have faced challenges managing the spills, the NSF pointed out.

"This is one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century. In instances such as this, where the situation is still developing and public health is involved, timing is everything," said William Cooper, program director in NSF's division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems. The division funded the awards. "RAPID grants give researchers the support they need to be on the ground and to collect data immediately."

About 10,000 gallons of MCHM—which smells like licorice—entered some 1,700 miles of pipe along the Elk River, say local officials. There is little information about MCHM’s toxicity and health effects.

Funding has been awarded to three primary investigators to research different engineering aspects of the West Virginia spill.

The University of South Alabama’s Andre Whelton will look at MCHM’s chemical absorption into, as well as removal from, plastic drinking water pipes. This research will chiefly focus on homes. West Virginia University’s Jennifer Weidhass will be studying the extent of the drinking water contamination, as well as the contamination at the treatment plant and in areas near the Elk River. Virginia Tech’s Andrea Dietrich will be assessing MCHM’s physical and chemical behaviors in the environment. This will add needed data to model the chemical’s environmental fate.

NSF indicated that the three studies, collaboratively, present a systems approach meant to improve understanding of MCHM in water systems.

"One of the concerns in this spill is authorities have little to no information about exactly what this chemical does to drinking water plumbing systems," said Whelton. "Chemicals tend to absorb more into plastic pipes than metal pipes. Plastic pipes can act as a sponge, sucking up chemicals." Although the water ban has been lifted, the damage and health effects remain unclear.

Residents have been advised to run their water before use so that contaminated water may be moved out of plumbing systems, according to NSF.

"I have never witnessed such a grand scientific need to characterize household plumbing system water quality," Whelton said. "We need to know more about the fundamental engineering and science of these interactions, which is why this is an NSF-funded project." The three awards total about $150,000 and are for one year.

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