Feds Point to Key Weak Point in West Virginia's Health Disaster Response

During the Elk River spill in West Virginia, water was trucked into the Charleston area. During the Elk River spill in West Virginia, water was trucked into the Charleston area. AP Photo/Alex Sanz

Eight months after West Virginia’s Elk River chemical spill, a federal agency has recommended the state set up a new program to assess community-wide chemical exposure, which it currently does not have. The report said that at the time of January’s spill, state public health officials weren’t trained to respond to such a disaster, which prompted a major water crisis in and around the state capital.

A memo from the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to West Virginia’s chief public health official said the state lacks a program for a response to chemical or radiological incidents or other emergency environmental issues.

The memo, posted by Charleston’s Daily Mail and Gazette, said disaster epidemiology is a relatively new field that seeks to produce actionable information for decision makers and planners following natural and man-made disasters.

“An epidemiologist working in this area would be the ideal leader for epidemiological response to environmental disasters,” it said. “This person could use their experience and contacts to rapidly coordinate a response, drawing on epidemiologists from other parts of the agency that have needed skill sets.”

West Virginia, according to the memo, can experience a wide range of disasters from an infectious disease pandemic to winter storms with widespread power outages, tornadoes, derechos, flooding, wildfires and man-made disasters such as chemical spills.

“Planning for different types of responses includes: identifying which group will be the lead, what will be needed for the response, and which other groups can provide expertise to augment the resources of the lead group,” the memo said, adding that “[m]aintaining a list of epidemiologists with specific skills and disaster epidemiology experience” would be helpful in an emergency-response situation when it’s important to identify key personnel assets in a timely fashion.

The ATSDR, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services public health agency based at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also recommended that West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources train epidemiologists specifically in disaster epidemiology.

The memo also recounted the events of early January 2014, when approximately 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) spilled into the Elk River 1.5 miles upstream from the Kanawha County municipal water intake near the state capital of Charleston. The chemical spill contaminated the water supply of approximately 300,000 local residents, the memo noted. A state of emergency was declared.

Following the spill, it said, patients began reporting to emergency departments and the state’s poison center received calls about symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, rash and headache. Furthermore, it said, on Jan. 21 it was disclosed that MCHM was not the only contaminant in the water supply.

The state’s Bureau of Public Health asked the ATSDR to assist with a rapid investigation of the health effects associated with MCHM exposure and assess the health needs of the impacted local population. Part of that investigation included an assessment of the bureau’s capacity for disaster epidemiology, the findings of which were issued in the memo report Monday.

In a statement released Tuesday, the state’s Bureau for Public Health said:

Over the last six months, the Bureau for Public health has been exploring additional training opportunities that will further strengthen the response preparedness of our agency’s epidemiologists during times of disaster. Additionally, we have been working with the WVU School of Public Health to create internships opportunities to help further recruit epidemiologists. The Bureau for Public Health has professional and capable epidemiologists that step in during disaster situations to help protect the safety and well-being of West Virginians.

The statement did not say if the department plans to create a program such as the one recommended by the federal agency.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting recently reported that federal, state and local officials are planning additional health studies on the Elk River spill. The state has also enacted legislation designed to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks.

David DeWitt is a journalist based in Athens, Ohio, and is a senior writer for The Athens News. He previously worked at National Journal’s Hotline and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com.


Get daily news from Route Fifty

Top stories on how innovation is driving smarter government across the country.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.