CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An executive with Freedom Industries apologized Friday night for a chemical leak that prompted a do-not-use water order in nine counties. However, his timetable of the contamination differed from one offered by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“Our friends and our neighbors, this incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated and we are very, very sorry for the disruption to everyone’s daily life that this incident has caused,” said Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, during a contentious Friday night news conference in Charleston.
Freedom Industries operates the source site of a chemical leak that has made water usage unsafe for West Virginia American Water Company customers in nine counties. Reporters fired questions at Southern as he repeatedly tried to end the event.
“Our intention is to be absolutely transparent,” he said. “We’ll tell you what we know and, as much as we know, to date, is we’ve had this release. Unfortunately, it appears some of the material did get into the river and potentially or has impacted the water supply in Charleston.”
As of Friday evening, almost 30 hours after WVAW officials said they were first notified of the leak, Southern could not confirm how much 4-methylcyclohexane methane had actually leaked from a storage tank into the Elk River. The 4-methylcyclohexane methane was described as a low-toxicity chemical used to scrub coal.
“We don’t believe a great deal of material left the facility and, at this time, we’re not in a position to give you a number in terms of how much volume is left. We simply don’t know yet. We will know that in the next couple of days,” said Southern.
Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection estimated between 2,000 gallons and 5,000 gallons leaked from the tank. However, they could not say how many gallons of that total made it into the Elk River and, later, to WVAW’s Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant.
Southern said company officials first became aware of the leak at 10:30 a.m. Thursday when two employees spotted the leak in a dike area behind the plant.
He said once the chemical was found to be leaking from the bottom of the 35,000-gallon storage tank and collecting on the far side of a containment dike, the matter was reported to authorities and containment began “immediately.”
However, DEP officials provided a differing account of the leak’s discovery in the citations issued against Freedom Industries for violations of the state’s water and air pollution acts.
State officials said they started looking for the source of a “licorice” odor Charleston residents were reporting as early as 8 a.m. Thursday morning and traced the odor to Freedom Industries. At that point, they said the company had not reported any leak. More than three hours later, DEP officials said no containment measures had yet been launched even though the containment pool was also leaking.
Southern said the problem tank had been emptied by Friday evening and its contents were moved off site. The next step in remediation, he said, would be to remove dirt that may be contaminated from the property.
On Friday, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper called on the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to investigate the leak.
Carper said it’s a necessary step following a cease operations order for the company from the DEP. “Based on this recent information, and DEP stating this was an air quality issue, I am requesting the U.S. Chemical Safety Board begin investigating this leak and its effect on Kanawha County, he said.
The site for Freedom Industries in Charleston operates as a terminal for products that are shipped across the United States.