A Q&A with Heather Lukacs, program director at an environmental justice non-profit organization and coauthor of “Risk, Uncertainty, and Institutional Failure in the 2014 West Virginia Chemical Spill”

In this post, we speak with Heather Lukacs, a PhD graduate of Stanford University’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. Dr. Lukacs’s work focuses on community-based natural resource management with and for underserved rural communities. Her article “Risk, Uncertainty, and Institutional Failure in the 2014 West Virginia Chemical Spill” in Case Studies in the Environment, co-authored with Nicola Ulibarri and Nik Sawe, lays bare the many and varied failures that led to, and compounded, the 2014 chemical spill that tainted West Virginia’s drinking water supply.

UC Press: Heather, you are originally from West Virginia, and you were finishing your PhD at Stanford when a Freedom Industries storage tank spilled 10,000 gallons of crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM)—a chemical used to process coal—into West Virginia’s Elk River. That river is a major source of drinking water in the state. What happened next?

Heather Lukacs in West Virginia.

Heather Lukacs: On January 9, 2014, the governor of West Virginia, Earl Ray Tomblin, declared a state of emergency and issued a “do not use” notice to residents across a nine county area. As residents watched the evening news, they were told not to use their tap water for drinking, cooking, washing, or bathing. Fumes of toxic licorice hung in the air in Charleston—the state’s capital—as restaurants closed before dinnertime, bottled water supplies ran out, some residents left to stay with relatives in unaffected areas, and hundreds began asking questions on social media. Local news sources revealed the culprit—MCHM—a chemical used in the coal cleaning process. The chemical leaked from a storage facility into the Elk River less than one mile upstream of the intake for the regional drinking-water system. My Facebook account lit up with speculation about this chemical and its potential risks. What is MCHM? How dangerous is it? Why can we not even wash our clothes in it? Who is responsible? Are my children going to be okay? US Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) called for a full investigation from the Chemical Safety Board, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other agencies. As speculation on social media persisted, I asked myself—would this chemical spill have long-term consequences for the health of local residents or for government policy related to drinking water? Or would we awake on the morning of January 10, 2014, to find that the smell had gone away and be told that the chemical was not toxic and we could safely drink our water again. One interesting part of this case study to me is that there is still so much that is unresolved about this case and also about the long-term safety of drinking water in the United States.

UC Press: After the drinking-water ban was lifted in the affected areas, Governor Tomblin was asked at a press conference, “Should we be drinking the water?” He responded, “It’s your decision. If you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking with this water then use bottled water. I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use it.” What does the governor’s response say about the larger issues at play here?

Heather Lukacs: How do we as individuals and as a society determine what levels of a contaminant are “safe” for consumption of drinking water? Governor Tomblin’s words are poignant in that he acknowledges that all the experts could not tell the general public that their water was safe. He put the burden of the decision about drinking the water on each individual resident and recognized that there was uncertainty. Federal and state regulations determine the legal levels of many contaminants allowed in drinking water, yet the chemical MCHM was (and is still) not a regulated chemical, so there was no established legal level.

UC Press: How did decide to distill what you learned about the WV chemical spill into a case study?

Heather Lukacs: During the first months after the chemical spill, I taught a version of this case study in a couple of different college classes related to risk perception and environmental ethics. Many of the broader themes resonated with different audiences. In the summer of 2014, I co-developed the written form of the case study with two fellow Stanford PhD students, Nik Sawe (now a Research Associate and Lecturer at Stanford University) and Nicola Ulibarri (now an Assistant Professor at UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology) at a National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) workshop on teaching case studies. The workshop helped us refine our case, and afterward Cynthia Wei from SESYNC encouraged us to submit to Case Studies in the Environment. Ultimately, we wanted to spread the word about the systemic failures that created the conditions for a chemical spill to taint WV’s drinking water. We hoped others would learn from this case and prevent similar failures in the future and in other places.

UC Press: In your work on water-justice issues, you are both a researcher and an environmental practitioner. What benefits are there for practitioners in publishing their work as case studies?

Heather Lukacs: Sharing the on-the-ground work of community-based environmental practice, from the perspective of practitioners, is immensely important. As environmental practitioners, we understand the issues and are connected to affected communities in ways that outside researchers are not. We chose to publish our work in the form of a case study to add to the peer-reviewed literature on environmental policy and resource management in a way that is accessible and easy to digest. The peer review process added legitimacy to our analysis. The ultimate goal of publishing this case study is to highlight challenges and opportunities in the provision of safe drinking water, which is one of my primary motivations.

UC Press: Where are we now with the WV chemical spill? And outside of WV, are there more hopeful developments on the horizon?

Heather Lukacs: This whole process revealed the gaps in our governance system for safe drinking water. There are so many important questions raised by the events in WV: What are our perceptions of risk? How do we define safe water? Who defines safe water? And how are these risks and protections communicated effectively, in an environment where people increasingly mistrust their drinking water? We still have a long way to go as a society to ensure universal access to safe water. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, a deadline recently passed for claimants to join a class-action suit for damages to people and businesses affected by the spill. Where I now work in California, there is a movement to establish drinking-water standards for chemicals not regulated at the national level, such as the pesticide 1,2,3,-Trichloropropane, from agricultural runoff. And for the first time in its history, California now regulates groundwater at the state level through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. That legislation provides local communities with the authority to establish their own groundwater agencies and implement their own regulatory schemes and monitoring. So there are glimmers of hope, but there is still a lot of work to do.

To read Heather Lukacs, Nik Sawe, and Nicola Ulibarri’s case study article on the 2014 West Virginia chemical spill in UC Press’s journal Case Studies in the Environment, visit cse.ucpress.edu or click here: Risk, Uncertainty, and Institutional Failure in the 2014 West Virginia Chemical Spill.

Case Studies in the Environment is a journal of peer-reviewed case-study articles, case-study pedagogy articles, and a repository for editor-reviewed case-study slides. The journal informs faculty, students, educators, professionals, and policymakers on case studies and best practices in the environmental sciences and studies.