Derek Lowe on the West Virginia chemical spill

by Walter Olson on February 5, 2014

Last month Charleston, W.V. suffered one of the worst American environmental calamities in years when coal-scrubbing chemicals burst from a tank farm and into its water supply, which had to be shut down for several days. So, you ask, given a great big injury for which it’s extremely likely that someone bears legal responsibility, how’s the litigation system helping out? Well, the operator of the tank farm having almost immediately declared bankruptcy in anticipation of massive legal claims, the net is naturally being cast wide for other defendants to sue, with some suits, for example, naming the water company as sole defendant.

According to Derek Lowe (crediting ChemJobber), one law firm’s suit drops the ball on identifying the exact chemical nature of the contaminant 4-MCHM, or (4-methylcyclohexane)methanol:

The court filing, by the law firm of Thompson and Barney, says explicitly:

30. The combination chemical 4-MCHM is artificially created by combining methylclyclohexane (sic) with methanol.

31. Two component parts of 4-MCHM are methylcyclohexane and methanol which are both known dangerous and toxic chemicals that can cause latent dread disease such as cancer.

Sure thing, guys, just like the two component parts of dogwood trees are dogs and wood.

Lowe also accuses an expert hired by the same law firm of “irresponsible fear-mongering” for encouraging alarm about a finding of just over 30 nanograms per milliliter of formaldehyde in the Charleston water, not a high level by many standards.


1 Mannie 02.05.14 at 2:26 pm

Lowe also accuses an expert hired by the same law firm of “irresponsible fear-mongering” for encouraging alarm about a finding of just over 30 nanograms per milliliter of formaldehyde in the Charleston water, not a high level by many standards.

30 nanograms per milliliter translates to 30 parts per million. That is a very high concentration. USEPA does not appear to have an MCL for formaldehyde, but the WHO suggests 2.6 ppm.

2 Gina 02.05.14 at 2:53 pm

Sure thing, guys, just like the two component parts of dogwood trees are dogs and wood.

Really horrible analogy. Industrial chemicals are named for their true components. Chemists don’t employ poetic license (e.g. the “dog” in “dogwood”) to come up with the scientific names of substances. I would hope that Derek Lowe understands that chemicals are named after their actual components.

3 Kurt 02.05.14 at 3:44 pm

I don’t know in this case how dangerous the substance is and whether it easily reverts to those two chemicals. But the dogwood tree statement may be somewhat relevant. I remember my eureka moment in middle school science when we talked about the chemical composition of water. Oxygen, highly reactive, and hydrogen, extremely flammable, put them together and they make something with completely different properties. That may (or may not) be the case here. Only someone with knowledge of this substance would know for sure. A lawyer should not be explaining science.

4 Bill Poser 02.05.14 at 7:55 pm


Derek Lowe has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and works as a chemist. I’m confident that he understands chemical nomenclature. The crucial point, which is clear if you read his post and have a basic background in chemistry, is that the name “4-methylcyclohexane)methanol” does not denote a MIXTURE of methanol and 4-methylcyclohexane. Rather, it denotes a COMPOUND, that is, a MOLECULE, consisting of a methanol molecule to whose carbon is attached a cyclohexane ring to which in turn is attached, at the number 4 position, a methyl group. It’s one moderately complex molecule consisting of three more elementary named pieces bonded together, a methanol group, a cyclohexane ring, and a methyl group. He also explicitly considers the question of whether this molecule might break down into a mixture of methanol and 4-methylcyclohexane and concludes that this is not possible in anything resembling the conditions that obtain in the natural environment.

So, yes, the analogy to “dogwood” not being a mixture of “dog” and “wood” is quite apt.

5 Bill Poser 02.05.14 at 8:06 pm


Your math is wrong. A nanogram is 10^12 grams so 30 nanograms per milliliter is 3 * 10^-11 grams per milliliter which is 3 * 10^-8 grams per liter, which is 0.03 parts per million. (You may have confused nano- with pico- (10^-9).)

6 George Lund 02.05.14 at 11:19 pm


Your final answer is right, but your units are confused (see:

Micro: 10^-6
Nano: 10^-9
Pico: 10^-12

For conversion to PPM:

1 microgram per milliliter = 1 PPM

30 nanograms = 0.03 micrograms, so 30 nanograms per milliliter equals 0.03 PPM.

7 Bill Poser 02.05.14 at 11:58 pm

George Lund,

Yes, of course you’re right. I switched things around.

8 Mannie 02.06.14 at 9:18 am

SAorry. I’m suffering from blood in the caffeine stream.

9 No Name Guy 02.06.14 at 1:01 pm

On the whole dog + wood meme and the stupidity of a lawyer for promoting ignorant theories of how chemistry works:

Combine chlorine with sodium. One is a poison gas used extensively in WW1, the other a highly reactive metal, that when put in water will cause the water to disassociate back into hydrogen and oxygen in a highly exothermic manner. Of course, combined they make that even more evil object of the food nannies like (thankfully former) Mayor Bloomberg – table salt. Hmmm….better not mention this to the lawyer in question – he’ll be saying that table salt = WMD’s / Chemical Weapons.

But hey, remember, this is a site about LAWYERS and their foibles. The law doesn’t need to concern itself with physical reality – all lawyers need to do is come up with something that SOUNDS plausible, physical reality be darned, and sell it to 12 hand picked chumps to put a boat load of money in their own pockets. That’s my biggest beef with lawyers and the law – there is no check on it by actual physical reality. There is no F=mA + coefficient of friction combination that will cause a lawyer to crash and burn if they try to, legally speaking, take a corner on an icy mountain road too fast. Nope….in fact, I’d argue that the law is set up to encourage lawyers to try and do wild things (legal theory wise) since there is somewhere between zero and negligible consequence of failure (cough, cough – moral hazard). In my business on the other hand (aerospace) failure results in an often times body filled smoking hole in the ground that makes the headlines for days or weeks and tends to be severely career limiting. OK….end rant.

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