Shortcomings Found at Site of Chemical Spill in West Virginia

Shortcomings Found at Site of Chemical Spill in West Virginia

Source: Dow Jones News Service, February 11, 2014
Posted on: http://envfpn.advisen.com

A private inspection of a chemical-storage facility three months before a spill there contaminated the water supply found that tanks at the site fell short of fully complying with federal standards, a federal official said Monday.

But the particular tank that leaked an estimated 10,000 gallons of a coal-processing chemical blend called Crude MCHM into the Elk River wasn’t examined during the review because the substance was considered “nonhazardous,” Rafael Moure-Eraso, head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said at a congressional hearing held in West Virginia’s capital.

The hearing was one of many called after the Jan. 9 spill, which left 300,000 people without tap water for at least five days. Investigations are focusing on many strands, including the condition of structures on the “tank farm” operated by Freedom Industries Inc.

Mr. Moure-Eraso, whose agency is investigating the leak, said Freedom requested that Tank Engineering and Management Consultants review its tank terminals in Charleston and nearby Nitro. The tank that leaked and the surrounding wall weren’t subject to local and state government inspections.

The October review found that the tanks had “been maintained to some structural adequacy but not necessarily in full compliance” with Environmental Protection Agency standards or the prevailing industry standard, Mr. Moure-Eraso said.

Freedom was bought by Chemstream Holdings Inc. in December. Jeff Kitchen, a vice president at Tank Engineering, confirmed the consulting firm was hired by Chemstream to provide “an expert opinion on the site conditions.” He declined to give any details about the review.

Mr. Moure-Eraso also told lawmakers that the safety board has determined on its own the cinder-block secondary containment around the tank that leaked “provided very little protection from a possible release.” Freedom documents show that the wall wasn’t lined and that the steel tank rested on porous material, including gravel and soil, he said.

Freedom President Gary Southern was invited to testify but didn’t respond to the request, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito said.

A Freedom spokeswoman couldn’t be reached to comment. The company filed for bankruptcy protection after the spill.

Mr. Southern testified at a bankruptcy-court hearing last month that Chemstream, Freedom’s buyer, had put $1 million in escrow to make upgrades but he didn’t specify how the money was to be used.

A current of anxiety over water safety pervaded Monday’s hearing, which came days after several local schools were closed because of complaints of a chemical odor. No state health or emergency-management official testifying at the hearing was willing to call the water “safe.”

“Everyone has a different definition of safe,” said Letitia Tierney, head of the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health.

Tests since Jan. 18 have found that water in the distribution system had levels of Crude MCHM below the limit set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after the spill. Still, little is known about Crude MCHM and its long-term effects on human health.

Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Co., whose water-distribution system was contaminated, also spoke, disputing a theory proposed by Freedom in bankruptcy filings that the leak could have been caused in part by a water line break, freezing the ground and piercing the tank.

Mr. McIntyre testified that the first report of water flowing on Freedom’s property came four days after the chemical spill, that his company’s equipment didn’t detect a leak and that state regulators have said that a flow of water at the Freedom site originates at an artesian spring–suggesting an alternative water source if freezing temperatures played a role in the leak.

Asked by lawmakers why his company didn’t shut the system down as soon as the spill was reported, Mr. McIntyre said a shutdown would have left the city of Charleston and parts of nine counties without water to fight fires or use in homes and businesses for toilets. Disinfecting and re-pressuring the 1,900 miles of distribution pipes would have taken more than a month under optimum conditions, he said.

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