Category Archives: Environment

#wvchemleak: A chemical spill near Charleston, WV has contaminated the tap water for 300,000 people


A chemical spill of crude MCHM into the Elk River near Charleston, WV on January 9, 2014 has contaminated the tap water for 300,000 customers of West Virginia American Water. The chemical was stored in tanks owned by Freedom Industries. Crude MCHM (MSDS, Eastman Chemical) is a mixture of several chemicals, including 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, 4-
(methoxymethyl)cyclohexanemethanol, methyl 4-methylcyclohexanecarboxylate, dimethyl 1,4-
cyclohexanedicarboxylate, methanol, and 1,4-cyclohexanedimethanol; it is used in the coal processing industry to produce “clean coal” that has impurities removed.


Photo: Foo Conner (@iwasaround), CC BY 2.0. Some rights reserved.

This is a developing story; if you are in the affected area, please seek accurate and timely information from local sources. If you are looking for water, has a map with details of water distribution sites.


Some of those sources might include stories from local newspapers, radio stations, and television stations. One of the best sources is Ken Ward, Jr., who writes the “Coal Tattoo” weblog for the Charleston (WV) Gazette.

Saturday Gazette-Mail – Freedom Industries cited for Elk chemical spill – Ken Ward, Jr.

Dorsey has said DEP officials began an investigation after receiving odor complaints from nearby residents starting at about 8:15 a.m. The DEP and Kanawha County emergency officials traced the odors to Freedom Industries, which had not self-reported any sort of leak or accident, officials said.

In an air-quality enforcement order, the DEP said air-quality officials who arrived at the site at 11:10 a.m. “discovered that no spill containment measures had been initiated and that an accumulating MCHM leak pool was seeping thru a dike wall adjacent to the Elk River and a downstream oil sheen was observed.”

Charleston Gazette – What is ‘Crude MCHM’? Few know – Ken Ward, Jr.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As hundreds of thousands of residents in and around the Kanawha Valley struggle with the “do not use” order from West Virginia American Water Co., one stubborn fact continues to frustrate residents and some local health officials alike: No one seems to be able to say for sure what the coal-cleaning chemical that’s been dumped into our water supply might do to us.

Water company officials have identified the chemical — which leaked from a Freedom Industries tank just upstream from the regional drinking-water intake on the Elk River — as something called “Crude MCHM.” That material is made up almost entirely of another chemical, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol.

Material-safety sheets from several manufacturers list little in the way of health information. Toxicological databases provide few answers.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting – State of Emergency, Water Advisory Issued for 9 West Virginia Counties

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has issued a state of emergency and West Virginia American Water is telling over 100,000 customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane counties NOT to ingest, cook, bathe, wash or boil water. Water in this coverage area is okayed ONLY for flushing and fire protection. The advisory comes as a result of a chemical spill of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol from Freedom Industries, Inc.

The hashtag #wvchemleak is being used for news and discussion of the event.


Huron River water level watching: USGS National Water Information System

Follow the level of the Huron River as it goes through Ann Arbor with the USGS National Water Information System. On March 23, the river is rising, but it's also fluctuating in levels, enough that it's difficult to determine whether current trends would lead you to believe that there is any risk of flooding.

image from you were to watch this closely, what would you watch?

The USGS will give you an alert if the level of the river is above or below a certain level.

The first derivative is the rate of change of the water level. You'd want to track that to note trends. If you measured the difference between adjacent water levels, you'd identify spikes, which have been associated with work on the dam in the past; those will give you a metric on the order of rate of change in inches per hour. If you did some smoothing, you'd find trending measured in feet per day.

The second derivative is the rate of the rate of change of the water level; you're looking for that to identify erratic behavior. As a rule of thumb a time series with large movements in both directions (up and down) over a short amount of time is a sign of river disturbance.

A plausible approach would be to compute a smoothed curve, and then alert on deviations from the smoothed curve. You'd love to be able to tell the difference between sudden downpour, steady rain, flash flood, work on the dam, and dam failure.

Another strip chart to line up with this is rainfail (measured in convenient units) and precipitation forecast.

This forecast is from USGS Waterwatch for Michigan. Hidden behind the projected water level is a rainfall forecast for the watershed.

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Statewide data, if you want to look for more, from Waterwatch. The black dots are flooding, blue are near flood.

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Edward Vielmetti watches water levels on the Huron River. Write to him at 

March 22 is World Water Day; tracking the Ann Arbor dioxane plume toward the Huron River

March 22 is World Water Day. The 2011 theme is Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge. The Ann Arbor District Library is hosting a 7:00 p.m. panel "Our Water, Our Future", with Mike Wiley from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment hosting.

A recording of the event is available for viewing or download at the Ann Abor District Library.

In Ann Arbor, the slow-moving but inexorable urban water supply problem is the spread of a dioxane plume towards the Huron River and the City of Ann Arbor's drinking water supply source at Barton Pond. The map below shows the newly expanded zone in which wells are prohibited in Ann Arbor because of this plume, which originated at the former Gelman Sciences facility on Wagner Road in Scio Township. Pall Life Sciences now operates the cleanup at this facility; it's part of Pall Corporation (NYSE: PLL).


Monitoring wells are tracking the spread of the plume. Scio Residents for Safe Water is monitoring the monitoring operation, and Roger Rayle has produced a series of maps illustrating the issues. This image depicts contamination levels as measured with 2009 data.

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The contamination began in the 1960s, when medical filter manufacturer Gelman Sciences began pumping industrial wastewater into lagoons on the site on Wagner Road. Cleanup began in the 1980s. Many details, including legal agreements and monitoring data, are found at the Michigan DEQ Gelman Sciences information page.

Previously: Goodspeed Update (2004);  Dioxane plume FAQ (2006); Scio Residents for Safe Water (2008); "Concerns raised over dioxane cleanup", Ann Arbor Chronicle (2009).

Edward Vielmetti writes the Vacuum weblog, since 1999.

Editor's note: link to video recording of panel added 3/25/11.

Fukushima fallout plume animation

Click to animate this plume of fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, as produced by ZAMG (Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik, Viennese Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics, Vienna Austria). Via the Harvard Japan Sendai Earthquake Data Portal.

Note that this is not the hoax map "Nuclear fallout" described by Snopes.

Of the map, the authors write (in German)

Zur Farbskalierung ist zu sagen, dass die rote Skala Gebiete kennzeichnet, die seit Beginn des Unfalles mit einer Effektivdosis von maximal 100 Milli-Sievert pro Stunde belastet waren (laut Informationen der IAEO). Die violette Skala zeigt daher maximal 100 Nano-Sievert pro Stunde an. Dieser Wert ist, selbst über ein Jahr summiert, niedriger als die natürliche Belastung, der jeder Mensch ausgesetzt ist.

as translated 

Regarding the colour scaling of the simulation, one needs to keep in mind that the red colour marks areas around the plant where the effective dose rates were, at the absolute maximum, 100 Milli-Sievert per hour (according to information released by IAEA in Vienna). The violet colour thus shows areas with estimated effective dose rates of 100 Nano-Sievert (maximum) per hour. Summed up over a period of one year, this would still be less than the natural radiation exposure of an average citizen.

Note that this is a simulation, and based on dispersion calculations. Actual measurements of observed nucleotides have been collected from locations monitoring the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as noted in this March 16 post "CTBTO Messnetz misst erste Radioaktivitätswerte über Japan/ Korrektur".

Nature Magazine has a story, Radiation data from Japanese disaster starts to filter out, (March 17) which describes the release of this data by the Austrian organization ZAMG.


More maps here.

Fukushima maps

Radiation is escaping from the Fukushima nuclear power plant after multiple explosions at the site.

A widely distributed graphic, attributed to Australian Radiation Services and purporting to show fallout patterns, is confirmed to be a hoax. A map from ZAMG in Vienna models the plume.

This post has been updated Friday, March 18 2011 at 3:00 pm to add the ZAMG info, which is on its own page.

News sources

Wikipedia: Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant; Fukushima I nuclear accidents.

BBC: Massive explosion at Japan nuclear power plant. With video, terrifying, of the Fukushima I plant blowing up. BBC News live report: 0227: There were two explosions at Reactor 3, the operator Tepco says – AFP.

Los Angeles Times: Damage at two Japan nuclear plants prompts evacuationsJapanese engineers work to contain nuclear reactor damage.

ABC, Australia: Explosion at quake-hit nuclear plant.

Tokyo Electric Power Company: Hourly news briefs from the power company that operates the plant, written in precise, careful English. From the 3/12/11 1pm update:

We are implementing a measure to reduce the pressure of the reactor
containment vessels,
but, one of our employees working in the Unit 1 was irradiated at over
100mSv level(106.3mSv). Because of absence of industrial physician, so he
will be diagnosed at a later day.  
We measured radioactive materials inside of the nuclear power station area
(outdoor) by monitoring car and confirmed that radioactive materials level
is higher than ordinary level. Also, the level at monitoring post is higher
than ordinary level.


Still is from live coverage from NHK of #3 reactor explosion.

Picture 7


福島第一原発 爆発の瞬間 Explosion at Fukushima nuclear plant, unit 1 

City maps

A city map, in English, from Fukushima City; use the mirror copy since the municipal site is overloaded.

Monitoring chart

Original source: I am unable to determine precisely what the graph measures, but the metric is in "nanogreys per hour", a measure of radiation dose. The spike is associated with the first of the two explosions.


Evacuation zones

Evacuation zones, based on post collected by EMN, showing a 10km zone around both plants. I'm not quite sure who TMN is, and I don't read the Japanese. The zones have since been expanded.

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Weather maps

A wind map for Japan, from, collected 3/12/11.


A second wind map from the same source, collected just after the explosion at unit 3.


Road maps

Kisei map, Fukushima traffic regulation. There is an interactive map showing the damage to roads in detail.

Picture 6
Edward Vielmetti has been writing the Vacuum weblog since 1999. He reported on the Kobe earthquake in 1995. Maps are provided with the help of the Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis Japan Sendai Earthquake Data Portal. Contact him at

Tsunami maps for March 2011 Honshu earthquake

Here's a view from Ann Arbor of the Japanese earthquake. A magnitude 8.9 earthquake struck off the coast of Honshu, Japan at 5:46 UTC, 2:46 pm Japan time, and 12:46 a.m. Eastern Time, about 6200 miles from Ann Arbor. Damage is extensive, with the city of Sendai hit hard, and concern for the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. The effects of the tsunami stretched across the Pacific.

This post was last updated Friday, March 11 2011 at 11:50 a.m. EST

Ann Arbor resident David Fry is in Hawaii and was evacuated from his hotel, according to a Twitter message. He writes: "Safe but uncomfortable. Trying to sleep on a concrete floor in an open air building with several hundred other people. Sounds like our hotel in the Kona area in the Big Island may have some damage."

There are certain to be more local people with ties to the area affected, but news has a way of trickling in.

Seek official sources for current information. These maps may have been updated since they were collected.

The Pacific Tsunami Information Center is a good source, as is the Japan Meteorological Agency. The USGS earthquake report is for an 8.9 magnitude quake off the east coast of Honshu.

Wikipedia is characteristically thorough: 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami.

The National Data Buoy Center has real time water levels across the Pacific.

Live blogs: Alertnet, Japan earthquake and Pacific tsunami; CNN, Japan earthquake live blog; Guardian, Japan earthquake live updates.  

Live television: NHK-TV via USTREAM; Waikiki beach cam (30 second preroll ad).

Photo essays: The Atlantic's In Focus: Earthquake in Japan.

Tsunami travel times, from NOAA.

Dr. Jeff Masters from Weather Underground: Great quake rocks Japan, generating dangerous Pacific tsunami.

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NOAA MOST model, plus observed; from NCTR visualization. This is at 2h 28m into the tsunami:

Picture 5

Japan tsunami map

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Did you feel it? Shake maps from USGS.

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Predicted tsunami surge heights, from

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US West Coast alert status, from

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Shelters in Tokyo, a Google map


From Socketsite, a San Francisco map showing areas at risk – not from this tsunami in particular, but in general.

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National Data Buoy Center for a buoy off the coast of Hawaii, 140 NM SE of Honolulu.


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here's a slightly later closeup of just the 3/11 data

Plot of Water Column Height Data for Station 51407
A map of Japanese nuclear power plants, from the International Nuclear Safety Center.


 Multiple quakes in Japan, via USGS: 

10-degree Map Centered at 40°N,140°E

10-degree map showing recent earthquakes

Father’s day: stick fishing

What's brown and sticky?  A stick.

One of my favorite parts of the Huron River, strange as it may seem, is the mill race downstream of Argo Dam.  It's utterly unloved, used for recreation only as a canoe portage.

M. and I went to the spillway that connects this mill race with the Huron, just upstream of the Detroit Edison Argo Substation.  There was a lot of trash – sticks, logs, aquatic weeds of various kinds, the odd can and bottle – clogging the spillway.  I brought two old cross-country ski poles, and we went stick fishing.   The object is to catch a stick and then pull it so it goes over the spillway.  

Both ends of the ski pole are useful.  The pointy end is better for poking and pulling.  The grip end has a loop to secure your hand in which can be used to snag a branch.  If you twist the loop you get a secure hold and can pull just about anything.

When we were done stick fishing, most of the spillway was free of brush and weeds.

We did see one couple who had caught some bluegills somewhere nearby, don't know exactly where.