On January 9, 2014, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), a chemical used to process coal, spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River and contaminated the drinking water of over 300,000 people. In the following weeks, the public uncovered a series of institutional failures—among the private sector, local utilities, and government agencies—preceding and following the spill. This case study introduces students to the institutional complexities and ecological vulnerabilities that slowed and confounded response to the disaster due to an unclear chain of responsibility across sectors. This case study also assesses how West Virginia residents and agencies perceived the environmental risk and the responsibility of different institutional agencies and how these perceptions added to the complexity and uncertainty surrounding response to the spill. This case study aims to teach students how risk assessment and perception interact with environmental governance.

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