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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Harvard Finds Trust a Major Factor in Response to 2014 Elk River Spill

On January 9, the one year anniversary of the Elk River chemical spill, a report evaluating the response to the spill concluded that the biggest challenge faced by health officials was public distrust, stemming from the uncertainty of the health risks posed by the contaminant. “The Public Health System Response to the 2014 West Virginia Water Crisis”, authored by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and from the Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies, examines the communication and coordination both within the public health system and in communications with the public.

The Elk River Spill occurred on January 9, 2014, when a faulty storage tank belonging to Freedom Industries spilled roughly 10,000 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, also known as MCHM, into the Elk River, the main water source for the Charleston metropolitan area. Roughly 300,000 West Virginia residents were left without potable water following the spill. MCHM is widely used as part of a process to clean coal, and the health effects of consuming MCHM are not well established.

This report found that, while overall communication went quite well during the response, 77 percent of surveyed residents felt they had a “low trust in government”, especially true among young, college-educated respondents. The researchers attribute some of the difficulties responders experienced to the uncertain nature of consuming MCHM, as well as to the long duration of the contamination. In spite of the difficulties, the expedient release of a DNU, or Do Not Use order, was found to be significantly beneficial for the response efforts, and the majority of the public was made aware of the contamination in a timely manner.

The report concludes that while “inherent uncertainty, plus what seemed to be constantly changing facts, undermined the public’s trust in officials,” there exist many opportunities for strengthening trust between officials and the public. In particular, the authors note that “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 research team included Dr. Elena Savoia from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health as well as Dr. Michael Stoto and Rachael Piltch-Loeb, MSPH, from Georgetown University.

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