Reports of a Chemical Leak into Elk River from storage tanks owned and operated by Freedom Industries on Thursday Jan. 7, 2013. A state of emergency was declared in 9 counties, and approximately 300,000 residents and businesses were told not to use the water except for flushing toilets.
The leaking tank is one of 13 owned by Freedom Industries, Inc. at their Etowah River Terminal. According to their website, there are 13 tanks capable of holding up a combined total of 4,000,000 gallons.
Etowah River Terminal is a liquid bulk storage and distribution facility servicing the Port of Charleston, West Virginia. The terminal is located approximately 1 mile upriver from intake facilities for the West Virginia division of American Water Works (AWK). Etowah River Terminal operates 13 bulk tanks with a total liquid storage capacity of 4,000,000 gallons.
AWK does not have the capability of detecting or removing the leaked chemical.
One imagines that the lawyers who are already filing damage lawsuits may have some interest in the terminal’s proximity to the water supply, an issue that could come back to haunt not only Freedom Industries but also American Water Works, a corporation with far deeper pockets and, presumably, more extensive liability insurance policies.
Three of the tanks contained the chemical identified as 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or Crude MCHM. It is used to wash coal. MCHM is NOT manufactured by Freedom Industries; it is produced by Kodak Chemical. Kodak Chemical has a contract with Freedom Industries to store and distribute MCHM.
Two other tanks which contained the same chemical at the facility were initially ordered by the EPA to be drained, a few hours later Freedom Industries was ordered by the EPA to drain all the tanks at this facility due to problems with the secondary containment area.
Before the Etowah River Terminal can resume operations, it must provide a report for approval that shows the integrity and soundness of all storage and containment structures.
As part of the DWWM order, Freedom Industries must Cease and Desist any further receipt of material to be stored within the faulty secondary containment and take all necessary measures to contain, recover and remediate the material that has escaped the facility. The facility is ordered to immediately conduct an integrity test of all the above ground storage tanks and secondary containment structures for the entire facility. Prior to resuming operations, Etowah River Terminal, LLC must provide a report for approval that documents the integrity and soundness of all storage and containment structures.
West Virginia and Federal agencies, including FEMA, worked to organize and provide water to effected residents. WV National Guard was called out to set up distribution points for water. Funding for emergency assistance is paid for by the US taxpayer. It is unknown if Freedom Industries will be billed for the emergency assistance.
Friday, Jan. 8, 2013: According to Press Conference, Freedom Industries President Gary Southern stated on-site employees first noticed the leak about 10:30 am on Thursday, tank was emptied and vacuum trucks were removing residual chemical from around the leaking tank.
One hour AFTER the leak was noticed, the EPA was notified by Freedom Industries.
Southern states the tanks are “looked at on a regular basis”.
We found out later, because these are storage tanks they are exempt from regulatory inspections. Tanks are approximately 50-60 years old. We are not sure how Southern defines “looked at” or “regular basis”.
Freedom’s crippled holding tank might not have passed an inspection if one were conducted. The leaky tank was part of an old Pennzoil refinery “dating back to the 1930s or 1940s,” a county official told CNN. And Charleston’s Mayor Jones believes the chemicals went through “holes in a retaining wall.”
Since the inch-wide holes in the retaining wall were big enough to see, there is a chance Freedom Industries might have known that their 70 to 80-year-old tanks were in need of replacement or repair. It is therefore possible that the company did not incur the expense of fixing them because they didn’t have to.
Freedom Industries doesn’t know what caused the leak, and cites cold weather as a possible factor.
When West Virginia inspectors arrived at Freedom Industries late Thursday morning, they discovered that the company had taken “no spill containment measures” to combat the chemical spill. Freedom Industries has no plan, no procedure for addressing such a leak in place.
The state Department of Environmental Protection said Freedom Industries violated the West Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Act and the Water Pollution Control Act by allowing the chemical “Crude MCHM,” consisting mostly of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, to escape from its facility, just upstream from West Virginia American Water’s regional intake in the Elk River.
The original estimates of the MCHM leak were between 2,000-5,000 gallons, this was revised upwards to approximately 7,500 gallons. Mike Dorsey, chief of the DEP’s homeland security and emergency response division said the tank contained about 30,000 gallons of material at the time of the leak.
We don’t know when the tank actually began leaking before it was noticed. One news reporter tried to pin Southern down as to when reports of “smell” were first made. She stated she had word there were complaints as early as Tuesday, Jan 7, 2013. Southern said he didn’t know about those, and mentioned there are often smell complaints when the chemical is being transported to and from the tanks. The reporter did not follow up by asking if such transportation was taking place on that day.
Per NBC News: Methylcyclohexane can be dangerous in high concentrations, but generally causes eye, skin and throat irritation, trouble breathing and dizziness or drowsiness if people are exposed, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It can cause pneumonia if it’s breathed deep into the lungs and nausea if it’s swallowed. The effects of prolonged exposure aren’t clear.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, Symptoms of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol exposure include:
- Headaches (ranging in severity)
- Reddened skin
Little is known about the safety implications for 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, according to the state’s Poison Control director Dr. Elizabeth Scharman because it hasn’t been adequately studied.
Southern referred to it as a “low-toxicity product” that has no impact on aquatic life, including fish. Allison Adler of the Department of Health and Human Resources says 32 people sought treatment at area hospitals for symptoms like nausea and vomiting. Of those, four people were admitted to the Charleston Area Medical Center. Their conditions were not immediately known.
Over the weekend, tests showed that levels of the licorice-smelling chemical used in coal processing were consistently below a toxic threshold, and in some samples, there was no trace of the chemical at all. This was due to the removal of MCHM from the tanks, and removal of contaminated soil in the area. It is also due to being diluted by the Elk River water and flowing downstream.
Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014 evening: If tests continue to show the water is safe, the ban affecting about 300,000 people across a nine-county region will be lifted in waves for specific areas, the first of which would be in downtown Charleston, said West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre. He gave no timetable for when people could start using the water again.
“I can tell you at this point, I don’t believe we’re several days from starting to lift (the ban), but I’m not saying today,” McIntyre said at a news conference Sunday.
“We see light at the end of the tunnel,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin told reporters.
Monday, Jan. 13, 2014: Water ban is being lifted for parts of the effected counties, and will be lifted in “zones” over the next couple of days.
West Virginia American Water has a “How to flush your plumbing system” instructions on-line at: http://www.amwater.com/files/WV%20-%20How%20to%20flush.pdf
Residents and business are being advised to “FLUSH” their systems, this would include not only the tap water, but also includes household appliances and fixtures:
The Elk River flows into the Kanawha River which flows into the Ohio River. As a precaution the Greater Cincinnati Ohio Water Works is shutting off its intake valves. Residents are not expected to be without water as the shutdown would likely last for approximately 20 hours, and the city has more than 60 hours of water in its storage containers.
This is precautionary because one of the treatment processes the Water Works has is granular activated carbon (GAC) and it can remove chemical contaminants.
These are the GAC (granular activated carbon) beds that can remove chemicals from the water. Cincinnati was the first utility in the nation to use GAC and then purify it on site.
Scientists are taking samples every mile between Ashland, Kentucky and Maysville to track the spill. ORSANCO uses thirteen monitoring stations along the Ohio River to detect and warn treatment plants downstream about spills.
Erin Brockovich and her team are currently investigating a major chemical spill in the Elk River, West Virginia. The severity of the spill has prompted both the federal government and West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to declare a state of emergency. You can request updates at http://www.brockovich.com/news/erins-team-currently-investigating-chemical-spill-charleston-west-virginia/
One would expect that at least there would be a mention of the contaminated water situation on the weekend news and related talk shows. Instead, these media outlets spent the time discussing New Jersey Governor Chris Christy’s bridge scandal and warm fuzzy pandas.
From this we learned that one Governor with a troubled bridge over water trumps 300,000 people without water.
Meanwhile, various industries such as fossil fuels and chemical continue to press for more and more environmental deregulation.
Midterm elections are this year. At stake is control of the House of Representatives, the US Senate and 38 governorships, you can expect ever more of this campaign cash — secret and not — flooding into local, state and federal races.
Time for YOU to get informed and one place to start is to FOLLOW THE MONEY. The Moyers & Company website has a good article “Four Surefire Tips for Following the Money in Your State”. Find out who is paying and who is taking in your state.
© 2014 by Dory Hippauf