Report on Response to Elk River Chemical Spill Defines Needed Communication Changes to Build Public Trust

Posted in News Release

WASHINGTON (Jan. 9, 2015) — A report issued a year after the 2014 Elk River chemical spill in Charleston, W.V., concludes that the biggest challenge faced by health officials was public distrust stemming from uncertainty about the potential harms of the chemicals. “The Public Health System Response to the 2014 West Virginia Water Crisis” report by researchers at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies (NHS) and Harvard School of Public Health, examines the communication and coordination within the public health system, as well as communication with the public.

On January 9, 2014, as much as 10,000 gallons of crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) spilled from a storage tank into the Elk River. The spill occurred about a mile- and-a-half upstream of the West Virginia American Water company system intake, subsequently contaminating the public water supply to most of nine counties in the state.

“This report analyzes the public health system’s response to the crisis in the initial days and weeks following the spill with the goal of improving responses to future events,” the researchers say. The authors define the “public health system” to include the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, county and state public health departments, elected officials, the West Virginia National Guard, and other city, county, and state agencies dealing with emergency response and environmental issues. 

“The public health system responded effectively in many ways to the 2014 water crisis in the Kanawha Valley,” write the researchers led by Michael A. Stoto, PhD, professor of Health Systems Administration and Population Health at Georgetown NHS. Within hours of the recognition that the spill was a public health issue, a DNU order and alerts were issued, state and local emergency command centers were activated, and the public notified, all following established protocols. The public learned of the contamination quickly and took action immediately.

The researchers say the biggest challenge that faced public officials was uncertainty about the health risks of exposure to MCHM.

“This inherent uncertainty, plus what seemed to be constantly changing facts, undermined the public’s trust in officials,” they write. “In future, similar situations, officials should acknowledge the uncertainty and tell the public what is known, what is unknown, and what they are doing to get more information.”

Another finding focused on communications given the scale of the emergency: “… while established communication protocols were followed, the number and variety of stakeholders and multiple command and communication centers, made it difficult to get the word out to local health departments, hospitals, businesses, schools and the public.”

To address this, the researchers recommend that emergency communication protocols should be re-tooled for large-scale public health emergencies.

Finally, the researchers note that the duration of the event caused significant challenges to officials.

The researchers write, “In order to improve communications and management during a long-duration wide-scale event in the future, a more inclusive regional planning process should be undertaken.”

The report was written after a series of interviews with public officials were conducted and a “look-back” meeting held. In addition to Stoto, researchers included Rachael Piltch-Loeb, an NHS alumna, and Elena Savoia, MD, MPH, at Harvard.

About Georgetown University Medical Center
Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis — or “care of the whole person.” The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing & Health Studies, both nationally ranked; Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute; and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization, which accounts for the majority of externally funded research at GUMC including a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health.