Report: W. Va. chemical spill could have been avoided

Jonathan Mattise
Associated Press

Charleston, W.Va. — A 2014 chemical spill into the water supply of 300,000 West Virginians could have been avoided if a company inspected its storage tanks and saw two tiny holes forming at the bottom, federal investigators said Wednesday.

Almost three years after the spill, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board released a draft report on the January 2014 leak from Freedom Industries. The spill prevented the capital city and surrounding areas from using their tap water for several days. Businesses were temporarily shut down for days and hundreds of people headed to emergency rooms for issues from nausea to rashes.

The disaster quickly inspired a new state law requiring more inspections and registrations of aboveground storage tanks. It spurred Freedom’s bankruptcy and resulted in 30-day prison sentences for two company officials on federal pollution charges, and fines and probation for four others.

Legal action over the spill is picking up again soon. On Oct. 25, a class-action lawsuit will head to a jury trial over whether West Virginia American Water and Eastman Chemical, the producer of the main spilled chemical, crude MCHM, did enough to safeguard against the widespread contamination.

“My message here today is what happened in Charleston was preventable,” Chemical Safety Board Chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland said Wednesday at a news conference in Charleston. “This incident could have been avoided if regular inspections had been conducted on these storage tanks, and the effects could have been mitigated with enhanced communication and preplanning.”

The board will present and possibly vote on the 125-page report Wednesday evening in Charleston.

In January 2014, two tiny holes from tanks at Freedom Industries leaked coal-cleaning chemicals underground and through a dilapidated containment wall into the Elk River. Johnnie Banks, Chemical Safety Board supervisory investigator, said it’s possible that the leak started before the day it was noticed.

Freedom’s MCHM tanks hadn’t been inspected internally for at least 10 years, and the company had no leak prevention or leak detection systems, Banks said. State law required a better containment wall, but state environmental regulators didn’t inspect the site due to resource constraints, the report says.

A mile and a half downstream, West Virginia American Water received incorrect information from Freedom about the characteristics and volume of chemicals heading its way, and kept the plant open, the report says. There was no alternative backup water source available for the plant.

However, the water company knew Freedom was upstream and hadn’t requested public information before the spill to understand what it stored, the report says.

“I think they were operating with the best information they had at the time they were making their decisions,” Banks said of the water company.

Federal health officials scrambled to make a benchmark based on limited scientific studies about when it would be safe to drink the water again. The health announcements that followed were confusing, and new, conflicting information kept residents wary of their water long after it was declared safe to use.

The report offers just a handful of recommendations, and none of them to government agencies. It suggests that a water provider trade group circulate the findings to companies. It recommends that all of the water plants within American Water Works Company identify which chemicals nearby pose threats to water supplies, and recommends drawing up treatment and contingency plans in case of spills. The report also gave credit for upgrades made at the West Virginia American Water plant.

The report then suggests that Eastman Chemical should update its safety data sheets with new federal crude MCHM experiments conducted after the spill. Banks said the board has no specifics on whether MCHM helped corrode the tank, a claim at the center of the class-action lawsuit against Eastman.

Despite the additional studies, Banks said little is yet known about chronic health impacts of crude MCHM.

But he said there haven’t been reports of long-term health problems from people who went to emergency rooms, and no reports of low birthweights associated with the spill.