About 300,000 West Virginia residents have learned the hard way that we take clean, fresh water for granted.   It’s reasonable to expect that what comes out of the tap is safe to drink, cook with and use for bathing.

But since last Thursday evening, customers of West Virginia American Water Company in nine counties have felt like they’re living in third world country, rushing to buy bottled water and lining up at temporary distribution points to fill containers with potable water.

Public officials have been concentrating on getting water to people and testing water in the lines to determine the levels of Crude MCHM. That chemical got into the water system last week when it leaked from a storage facility at Freedom Industries into the Elk River, about a mile and a half upstream from WVAWC’s intake.

Those same public officials have been cautious about casting blame until the crisis is over and there’s a full investigation, but here are some points to consider.

Freedom Industries is responsible for the leak. It’s their tank or their property and it’s the company’s obligation to maintain the structural integrity of its facilities.   The tank that leaked was more than 50 years old and the state DEP officials say the leak containment system was virtually non-existent.

Freedom responded too slowly to the leak.  A citizen reported a strong odor to the DEP around eight o’clock Thursday morning.  DEP tracked it to Freedom Industries by 11:00 a.m., where employees were apparently unaware of the leak, despite a powerful smell.

West Virginia American Water Company believed that its sophisticated filtration system would handle the spill, and only several hours later issued the do-not-use order after it became apparent the chemical was getting through.  It’s important to note that had WVAWC stopped the intake it would have dropped pressure in the lines, putting fire service at risk.

The chemical that spilled is not considered toxic or hazardous, and it would take extremely high concentrations to cause any serious health problems.  However, once WVAWC made the decision to impose the do-not-use order, it had to establish a process for determining acceptable levels, a time-consuming process requiring hundreds of separate tests throughout the system.

Freedom Industries tank farm does not require any specific permitting, beyond a standard license for rainwater runoff.   “There was no environmental framework in place to stop the leak in the tank or the secondary containment,” DEP Secretary Randy Huffman told me.

But he believes there should be.  He has already talked with Governor Tomblin about legislation this session to establish a permitting process for storage facilities like Freedom.

Huffman says the state needs the ability to “dictate in advance” whether a proposed storage facility and the back-up containment systems are reliable.  He says Freedom’s leaky tank “could not have passed any sort of reasonable standard.”

Accidents are going to happen, but the subsequent question is whether such accidents are preventable and if the impact can be mitigated.   Initially, the answer to both questions appears to be “yes.”

 

 

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Comments

  • Harpers Ferry

    What went wrong? Our state government runs West Virginia like a 3rd world country. The politicians put their own economic interests before those of their constituents. And the people of this state just do what they're told, like good little sheep. Baaaaaa! Coooaaallll! Baaaaaaa!

  • Wirerowe

    Td you say that the water crisis in Charleston proves that we need EPA. Let's look at the facts. 100% of the heavy lifting of identifying the leak, containing the leak, remediation and issuing the cease and desist order was carried out by DEP. 100 % of the press conference responses and media responses have come from DEP 's Randy Huffman and Mike Dorsey. Ken Ward reported that there were three EPA employees in Charleston but they were not available for comment. Will EPA make comments and talk about action post mortem? You can count on it and you can count on any discussion being filled with recriminations and name calling. Does West Virginia need EPA.? You betcha. But when West Virginia really needed EPA, when it really mattered,when 300,000 customers were experiencing a severe water crisis, EPA was no where in sight. EPA was missing in action.

    • TD

      My point is that the work the EPA does in many instances, obviously not this one, is vital to our country. In addition, the philosophy of bashing the agency and all government regulatory agencies (which is a favorite hobby of the right wing) is very damaging and wrong headed. From the environment to Wall St, gov't regulatory agencies are constantly attacked by Republicans as unnecessary evils that are damaging business. The fact is it's impossible to prove a negative so all the disasters like this one that ARE prevented cannot be proven but these regulatory agencies are there for good reasons and we should identify those who bash them everyday with impunity for what they are, corporatist who only worship at the altar of big business.

    • Hillboy

      It is a misconception that EPA has a lot of on-the-ground employees going around inspecting facilities and responding to emergencies such as this one. For most federal environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA has a role in writing the rules. Once the rules are written at the federal level, and the states have written and approved rules that are at least equally strict the jurisdiction for oversight is usually passed onto to the appropriate state agency. The jurisdiction for overseeing drinking water in West Virginia is, I believe, with the WV Bureau for Public Health within the DHHR. WV DEP has jurisdiction for the water quality in streams and rivers.

      Congress set it up so that state agencies have day-to-day responsibility for implementing environmental laws, even if they originated at the federal level. States did not want federal authorities constantly looking over their shoulders. So, it's unrealistic to ask "where was EPA when we really needed them?"

      • Wirerowe

        Part of that is accurate assuming that EPA allows state's primacy. Why would a major EPA representative not be visible and concerned with a major event like thisWhy would the administrator not have their top people on the ground to support the state in crisis. Why would the people that were here not be allowed to talk. EPA was missing in action. Wait until the dust settles and the President and EPA will be all over the screens with wrongful indignation. EPA
        Was missing in action.

        • Hillboy

          My understanding is that EPA sends a full-blown emergency response team out when state and local response capability is overwhelmed or help is requested. Were either of those the situation here? I don't think EPA has the jurisdiction to tell the state to step aside, that they are taking over.

          In emergency situations a chain-of-command is usually put in place including a designated media contact person. It's not unusual for those not specifically designated to talk to the media to decline to do so. Clearly, EPA was here only in a support role, not a lead role. Should they have done more? Who knows?

  • WEST VIRGINIAN

    Anyone with any brains would know that toxic chemicals should not be stored on a river bank 1 1/2 miles up river from a water source.

    I have driven by these old rusty tanks for years driving up elk river road and it would not take a rocket scientist to see the danger to the river.

  • TD

    Freedom Industries is just another company ran with a right wing mindset that has little regard for the environment and apparently the public safety. They have ties with Koch Industries which pretty much tells you all you need to know. When asked if they had any additional precautions to alert them of a leak other than smell the President of the company said no. That is truly amazing. Well for all of you who hate the EPA and cheer on Hoppy's monthly tirade about the agency, this is what we would have many times over if the the EPA didn't exist.

    So maybe you reconsider your view that it is a sinister agency? I wrote a couple weeks ago the the gas industry would be great for WV but we have to regulate very heavily because the Don Blankenships always rise to the top and when all is learned about this company I would bet that is the case here.

    • Lowlander

      No, I won't reconsider my thinking of the agency...they still would not have been involved in this. It didn't involve coal emissions or some poor lady and her chicken farm.

    • Uncle SAM

      TD,

      Where did you get that piece of information, Daily Kos or Workers of the World?

      I may enjoy logging on to here and playing a shameless, obtuse, fool for a few laughs and sport but you sir, are the real deal.

      Linking Freedom Industries to Koch Brothers has as much validity as trying to link GMC to Anheuser Busch because they both happen to be involved in NASCAR.

      • TD

        They've have a contract with Georgia-Pacific (owned by Koch Industries) since 2008. Nothing wrong with that only that the Koch brothers are very specific with whom they award contracts to, we'll see when it all comes out in the end. I could be wrong but doubt it.

      • Hop'sHip

        Here, Crazy Uncle, let me help you by putting things in terms TD would understand:

        Linking Freedom Industries to Koch Brothers has as much validity as linking Obama to that phony IRS scandal.

        • Uncle SAM

          TD, I believe HH just summed your political competency up to be equal to that of an old white man or a Tea-Bagger- Which name is your preference? Although, "T-bagger-D" has a nice ring to it, sounds quite like a rappers name, too.

        • Wowbagger

          Hipster,

          One of Obama's predecessors and a better man, a Democrat named Harry Truman as I recall had a sign on his desk that says: The Buck Stops Here!

          Last time I checked Obama is head of the Executive Branch of Government that includes the IRS just like Truman.

          Neither of the Koch Brothers have such a sign and they have no interest in Freedom Industries.

  • ShinnstonGuy

    This whole event is not much of a shock, really. Our state has been the nation's wh*re for a while now, allowing businessmen to come in and rape us of our natural resources, never caring about what they do to the environment or what they leave behind. Remember the lessons from school about how the coal barons built libraries and concert halls in Pittsburgh and New York, yet wouldn't do a thing for us mountain people? I still fear that this could happen again in the Marcellus shale areas, but will be much worse. Regardless, I hope the water is restored soon.

    On a cynical note, now the legislature will have something to do this session rather than place blame on each other for a lack of state revenue, teacher pay increases, and highway funding.

    • Jason412

      Not to nitpick, but steel barons built the libraries, universities, museums, and concert halls of Pittsburgh. I know coal is part of the steel process, but Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick made their fortunes selling steel.

      You have a good point, though.

    • Wowbagger

      Shinnston,

      You forgot your local oil baron Mike Benedum from Bridgeport who made most of his money in Texas, discovering the incredibly productive Permian Basin for example, and dedicating most of it in perpituity to WEST VIRGINIA through the Claude Worthington Benedum (his son) Foundation.

      • Wowbagger

        BTW

        In Mike Benedum and his partner Joe Trees time most of the drillers in Texas were from West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

        What goes around comes around!

  • Wowbagger

    If you stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the part(s) in the watershed of the Asheville, NC reservoir and a Ranger passing by wil stop andl tell you to move on. Don't get caught relieving yourself or dumping anything or you will be in BIG trouble! The reservoir is in sight, but probably a couple of miles away, as I recall.

    In West Virginia the water intake for the largest public water system in the state is immediately down river from an industrial area, the river is nearby and parallels one of the busiest interstate highways in the state carrying among many other vehicles numerous chemical haulers. One approach for an active runway for the biggest airport in the area and probably the state intersects the river upstream, above the intake.

    Freedom Industries is clearly responsible for the current situation, but what is wrong with this picture!

    Oh, by the way, the exact location of the intake is confidential as making it public is a homeland security issue. Somebody realized this location is important, but state, city, county, and West Virginia American Water seem to have clearly dropped the ball.

  • CaptainQ

    Hoppy, you have excellent insights as usual.

    If there is one thing we have all learned the hard way from this unfortunate incident is how vulnerable the Charleston area water system truly is. This begs the question, are other public water systems in this state potentially just as vulnerable to a chemical leak or spill?

    Perhaps after the DEP finishes in Charleston, they should go on a statewide tour to check the status of other water systems to make sure they'd be prepared if such a catastrophe would occur with them. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

    • GregG

      Wouldn't that be considered a "War on Chemicals" Captain?

      • CaptainQ

        GregG, why try to bring politics into a major crisis like this?

        One thing I do believe Democrats and Republicans can agree on is that THIS situation should've NEVER happened. Freedom Industries caused this crisis, they must be held accountable for it. The water system in Charleston must be cleared and cleansed for the good of those 300,000 + customers who depend on it for fresh, clean water.

        No politics here, GregG. No 'War' on anything other than getting things back to normal, period.

        • GregG

          Why do I "try to bring politics into a major crisis like this?" Why not? After all it is the latest trend. Any time a government agency attempts to actually do it's job by forcing big business to operate in a safe and ethically manner thousands start screaming. Seven days ago, if the headline would have read....DEP and EPA shuts down Freedom Industries for safety violations this comments section would be filled with the typical anti Obama, anti liberal rants. A week ago it was the typical "less government", now it's "bring me water and compensate me for my losses".

          • Jason412

            Too true, GregG.

          • Hop'sHip

            You have to understand GregG that we don't object to an industry destoying our physical environment, as long as they do it gradually. When they do it over a number of years, it gives those of us with means an opportunity to get out while the getting's good. But when you have these sudden big spash events, that is when we expect these regulatory agencies we hate to intervene BEFOREHAND TO PREVENT! If they don't prevent, then obviously they are useless and we should defund them.

          • Mike

            AMEN GREG!

        • Hillboy

          Freedom Industries may have been the immediate cause of this crisis but all of us West Virginians are complicit. We, Republicans and Democrats, support a model of state government that is based on bare-bones regulation of industry and minimal protection of the environment. Frontier was not subject to inspection by DEP because they were "only storing chemicals," not producing them. The state consensus seems to be "let's not regulate anyone out of business." Then we wonder how something like this could ever happen.

          • GregG

            You hit the nail on the head Hillboy!!!

          • Hillboy

            I meant to write Freedom---not Frontier. must have something to do with my frustration with how well Frontier provides internet service.

        • Shadow

          Which was first, the intake or the tank? I get the impression from the words that the tank was there long before the intake was put in. Do I have the wrong impression?

    • Wowbagger

      Captain,

      I agree, but suggest the tour not be limited to water systems.

      Hazardous chemical manufacturing or storage upwind or adjacent to populous areas like the old Union Carbide Methyl isocynate plant (twin of the Bhopahl, India plant) in the Kanawha Valley comes to mind and I am sure that there are other potential disasters just waiting to happen out there.

      • Hillboy

        I agree. We could call it the Disaster-Waiting-to-Happen tour. I nominate that coal sludge ponds associated with coal cleaning facilities be included as well.

        • Wowbagger

          I recall walking below the dam of a recreational lake in Marion County several years ago during a drought and was surprised at the sloppy wet ground. Don't know if I needed to call anyone or not.

    • flossrancher

      Please look up "beg the question." You apparently do not know what it means.

  • GregG

    I'm going to bet, when all of the is over and an investigation is completed.....and if the truth is made public.......you are going to find one of two things. 1. This company has never been inspected by any government agencies, or 2. They have been inspected and the typical blind eye was turned for political or monetary reasons. I'm not going to waste my typing fingers with the details, but I will say this....several years ago I worked in an industry where I was required to have yearly training and certification so I have a pretty good working knowledge of the handling, storage, transportation and disposal of chemicals and hazardous waste. And unless there has been a "weakening" of regulations, which I seriously doubt, then there are numerous lies being told by numerous people. Let's just say there are a lot of "dirty hands". I get blasted regularly for my views on Big Business and their control over our government, mostly by people who have the "War on Coal" mentality, maybe now some will see that trusting big business to operate in an ethical manner is ludicrous. And now it was gotten to the point where big business has so much control over our government that even agencies in place to oversee things of this nature are failing us. We are seeing first hand what an impact a little accident can have. I wouldn't want to even think what would have happened should we actually have a major catastrophe. I'll just sit back and watch the dog and pony show that's sure to come. I'm sure over the next several weeks the likes of Danny Jones and Kent Carper will provide some wonderful entertainment. Maybe we could turn it into a drinking game. Over the next month every time Jones or Carper uses the word "unacceptable" we'll take a swig.

    • Brother where art thou

      No thanks!! this liver has to do me for I hope 50 more years.

      If you notice Jones nor Carper are at any of the press conferences.. But each time I tune into Metro News or WCHS radio it won't be long until one calls in.. In fairness I didn't hear Jones any yesterday but I sure heard Carper calling in...

    • wirerowe

      greg the DEP is saying that EPA never designated the said chemical as hazardous or at risk and that there were no air or water discharges and that it was a storage facility. There was nothing that triggered inspections. Don't shoot the messenger that is what they are saying.

      • GregG

        Not picking on you wirerowe, but that's my point. It would seem (time will tell) that you are correct in saying "there was nothing that triggered inspections". Now I don't know about you, but I have a big problem with this if that is the case. I would like to think that a large chemical storage facility would be under as much scrutiny as a private club is in regards to a "smoking ban". But at this point in time, it appears that may not be the case. I just hope that a true investigation is done and the actual facts are made public.

    • Wowbagger

      GregG,

      Agreed that crony capitalism is rampant, but it isn't uniform across all industries and it takes two to tango. At least half of the blame should go to the permanent political class and their minions. Randy Huffman and of course his boss ERT comes to mind!

      Check out Peter Schweitzer's book "Extortion" for many disgusting examples on both sides of the aisle.

    • mntrbob

      GregG, I guess this means that your hiatus from broadcasting is now over.

      • GregG

        Haven't found anything worth "tuning in" to except a bunch of lying and crying. Some of this I find rather amusing. Listening to my wife cry about heating water to take a bath or driving to another county is kind of funny. Hell when I was a little boy Mom slapped me in a #2 wash tub and heated water on the stove. Never knew what temperature it was going to be until it was to late. The old outhouse and wash tub wasn't an inconvenience.....it was all we had. People are to touchy feely today. These people crying because they have to heat water to bathe or wash a few dishes area a hoot. Makes me wonder how they would have made it growing up in my era. But all of this does prove one thing. Most of these folks wouldn't make it if there was an actual catastrophe. If it doesn't come from a pipe, go into a pipe, come off a grocery store shelf or a restaurant......they can't survive.

  • Wirerowe

    A major problem was incompatible land uses with a chemical storage facility upstream on a relatively low flow stream from a major water intake. All water intakes are downstream from something but dilution minimizes the risk. Freedom Industries is the major culprit. But wv American water , EPA ,DEP and Kanawha county are also at fault for various reasons including no inspections from EPA, or Dep, no labeling as an at risk chemical by EPA and all the parties for not being prepared to monitor, contain and remove the chemical once a leak was detected. But going forward the siting issue of chemical facilities upstream from a water source should be main focus.

  • Brother where art thou

    So the Kanawha County Commission has been sitting a CSB's proposal and its recommendation for a new "Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program," since 2011 that would put a solid plan in place to prevent accidents like this from happening but has failed to fund it??

    • Wirerowe

      CSb was ver clear that their recommendations were for extremely hazardous waste such as at Bayer's plant. The chemical in question has never been designated as a hazardous waste. Should there have been a better plan in place for freedoms Imdustries. Certainly. But it has nothing to do with Csb's recommendation. Ward knew that and he did another one of his hundreds of unethical misrepresentations today

      • Brother where art thou

        I originally read this article 3 minutes after it's posting. It seems now it's been edited or not all of page 2 had down-loaded at my first reading.

  • CincinnaTEA

    The guv isn't surrounding himself with people that give an impression of knowing much of anything. Not a reason to rest well at night.

  • leroy j gibbs

    Lucky it wasn't a more toxic chemical. It did show that if a terrorist wanted to do something like this it would take out about 300000 people. Homeland security? Where were/are you?

  • Jason412

    Not only was the tank 50 years old but Freedom knew it needed $1 million in repairs.


    There were no inspections at all? Just a runoff license and a hope everything was on the up and up?

  • The bookman

    Great synopsis Hoppy!

  • Steve Hopkins

    Hoppy, stop trying to mitigate for your corporate masters. This stuff is BAD, and these horrific, increasingly damaging events should be galvanizing us into action to replace the bulk of our wood, coal, gas, oil and nuclear energy with power from completely clean, non-combustible sources. Our current path, stretching ever farther into the bleak future thanks to the myopic actions of our entrenched government/industrial complex, will result in more degradation ending in the suicide of our species. People need to be angrier about this. Maybe a more viscerally challenging soundtrack will help. If you're pissed off at what America has become, but still love what it could be, then this song is for you. Scream your anger! https://soundcloud.com/biff-thuringer/to-america

    • Wirerowe

      Steve repeat very slowly after me wind and solar represent about 4 % of our energy. In 20 years they will represent less than 10 % based on Doe projections. Our future is bright because America has more fossil energy reserves than any other country. Cheer up.

    • Shelly

      " replace the bulk of our wood, coal, gas, oil and nuclear energy with power from completely clean, non-combustible sources"

      Which is?
      Hand wringing with no real solutions

    • Wowbagger

      Unfortunately after these non-polluting energy sources reach approximately 20 percent grid reliability is impacted NEGATIVELY and you need to start figuring out how to fix the new problem. Ugly pump storage facilities like the one in Highland County, Virginia will work, but you need a lot of them and there are not a lot of places where topography will accomodate these. Big storage batteries are very polluting and not feasible. Hydro power helps, but pulverized coal plants and nukes are now providing the necessary base load. There are really no alternatives!

      • Lowlander

        Do you mean "Bath County Pump Storage Station?" or have they built another one in the area?

        • Wowbagger

          Oops,

          I actually knew better, but didn't have a map on hand to check.

          Did you know that in the 70s the plan was to make Canaan Valley into part of a similar pump storage facility. Don't remember what stopped this project, but it is possible that Canaan valley would not hold water due to the potentially cavernous limestone in the floor.

    • Harpers Ferry

      Shelly and Wirerowe are 2 very well-behaved sheep