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

  • Uncle Unctuous

    For me, this has been an inspiring example of what can be achieved when private sector obliviousness to the safety of the community comes together with a head-in-the-sand public utility in the midst of a political climate that loathes regulation of industry and funding of enforcement agencies. Great job, everybody!

  • John Pignato

    MCHM is both toxic and hazardous. Check its MSDS sheet.

    Also, a few overlooked points:

    1. Is there no monitoring of fresh water influent to identify dangerous substances before they get into the water treatment plant ? Is this true for water treatment for water that goes to the White House ? the Pentagon ?

    2. What agency (Health Departments ?) approves the siting of a drinking water intake ? Maybe HOMELAND SECURITY SHOULD TAKE OVER THE FUNCTION.

    3. In West Virginia, the DEP director said that MCHM used in the field to wash coal is then put back into the rivers by PERMITS ? Really ? Someone should look at the approved discharge limits. Are they below 1PPM ?

    4. Why did not WVAW close its water intake when MCHM was detected and let the chemical pass ?

    5. What happens to MCHM collected in cesspools and septic systems ?

    6. Why do we allow chemicals to be sold and used when we do not know their human health effects ?

    7. Does the LD50 for fat head minnows suggest that 1PPB is more appropriate then 1PPM as a limit for MCHM ?

    8. MCHM may not help with firefighting since it is combustible at high temperatures.

  • John Pignato

    MCHM is both toxic and hazardous. Check its MSDS sheet at:

    http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/wvpn/files/201401/MSDS-MCHM_I140109214955.pdf

    Also, a few overlooked points:

    1. Is there no monitoring of fresh water influent to identify dangerous substances before they get into the water treatment plant ? Is this true for water treatment for water that goes to the White House ? the Pentagon ?

    2. What agency (Health Departments ?) approves the siting of a drinking water intake ? Maybe HOMELAND SECURITY SHOULD TAKE OVER THE FUNCTION.

    3. In West Virginia, the DEP director said that MCHM used in the field to wash coal is then put back into the rivers by PERMITS ? Really ? Someone should look at the approved discharge limits. Are they below 1PPM ?

    4. Why did not WVAW close its water intake when MCHM was detected and let the chemical pass ?

    5. What happens to MCHM collected in cesspools and septic systems ?

    6. Why do we allow chemicals to be sold and used when we do not know their human health effects ?

    7. Does the LD50 for fat head minnows suggest that 1PPB is more appropriate then 1PPM as a limit for MCHM ?

    8. MCHM may not help with firefighting since it is combustible at high temperatures.

  • John Pignato

    The chemical spilled, MCHM, is both toxic and hazardous. Check the MSDS sheet at:

    http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/wvpn/files/201401/MSDS-MCHM_I140109214955.pdf

    Further, MCHM can not be used for putting out fires; it burns.

    Also, a few overlooked points:

    1. Is there no monitoring of fresh water influent to identify dangerous substances before they get into the water treatment plant ? Is this true for water treatment for water that goes to the White House ? the Pentagon ?

    2. What agency (Health Departments ?) approves the siting of a drinking water intake ? Maybe HOMELAND SECURITY SHOULD TAKE OVER THE FUNCTION.

    3. In West Virginia, the DEP director said that MCHM used in the field to wash coal is then put back into the rivers by PERMITS ? Really ? Someone should look at the approved discharge limits. Are they below 1PPM ?

    4. Why did not WVAW close its water intake when MCHM was detected and let the chemical pass ?

    5. What happens to MCHM collected in cesspools and septic systems ?

    6. Why do we allow chemicals to be sold and used when we do not know their human health effects ?

    7. Does the LD50 for fat head minnows suggest that 1PPB is more appropriate then 1PPM as a limit for MCHM ?

  • John Pignato

    MCHM is both toxic and hazardous.
    Check the MSDS sheet at :

    http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/wvpn/files/201401/MSDS-MCHM_I140109214955.pdf

    Also, a few overlooked points:

    1. Is there no monitoring of fresh water influent to identify dangerous substance before they get into the water treatment plant ? Is this true for water treatment for water that goes to the White House ? the Pentagon ?

    2. What agency (Health Departments ?) approves the siting of a drinking water intake ? Maybe HOMELAND SECURITY SHOULD TAKE OVER THE FUNCTION.

    3. In West Virginia, the DEP director said that MCHM used in the field to wash coal is then put back into the rivers by PERMITS ? Really ? Someone should look at the approved discharge limits. Are they below 1PPM ?

    4. Why did not WVAW close its water intake when MCHM was detected and let the chemical pass ?

    5. What happens to MCHM collected in cesspools and septic systems ?

    6. Why do we allow chemicals to be sold and used when we do not know their human health effects ?

    7. Does the LD50 for fat head minnows suggest that 1PPB is more appropriate then 1PPM as a limit for MCHM ?

    By the way, MCHM is useless in putting out a hot fire; it burns.

  • Benthere

    If this happened any where else but WV there would be a huge backlash at the company, but also American Water and State government. All three failed the residents of this area miserably. Yes, thank you for the water but it does not cover the incredible misconduct by all involved. It is absolutely inexcusable that this facility was allowed to store chemicals a mile and half from a municipal water source without secondary containment. Then the water company allows the contaminated water to be introduced into the system. Rogue industries like Freedom Industries are the reason for due diligence by the State and American Water. The failure here is a huge embarrassment for the State and the area and galvanizes the image of West Virginia to the rest of the nation.

  • Andy

    The most preventable incident in the history of industrial incidents. We have plenty of regulators and emergency personnel. If your job included Emergency "Management" in any capacity with the state, county or WV American Water, there should have been some trigger based on common sense that at least would have lead to a site visit and recognition that the secondary containment, among many other things, was an accident waiting to happen.

  • Gary Taylor

    Pretty much says it all, except the blow the judicial system will take trying to mitigate all the lawsuits arising from this. Some may and probably do have legitimate claims, especially the food and hotel industry. Let's take time to put the blame where it belongs and hopefully use this as a valuable learning experience to possibly stop this type of thing from reoccurring.

  • Shadow

    Logically, it stands to reason that if the company met all the requirements imposed by the various governments, they are no more responsible that a homeowner with a leaky sewer line. The Government is our Protector.

  • mntnman

    Query: If the chemical is not that dangerous, do you think the owners/operators of the company would drink a big cup of it? A 50% solution? 25% solution? Yeah, that's what I thought.

    Most chemicals we produce are dangerous to humans, animals and vegetation. I suggest we avoid calling them not dangerous -- more likely they are not fatal in small doses.

    This incident, and many like it before simply establish pretty clearly that regulation is not only desirable, but necessary for public safety.

  • DWM

    This is a perfect example of something that infuriates me. People act and respond as if this is a failure of government and that government exists to protect us from all harm.I say No, and frankly, I don't want to live in a country where the government thinks they should have the level of control over my life.

    This was a failure of a particular company to exercise control of a hazardous substance and they should and will be held accountable.

    How did we ever get to the point that government is the answer to all our problems? We are pitiful.

  • John S. Shackelford

    This event has given the terrorists "The Expressway to My Heart"!

  • John S. Shackelford

    Hoppy, I remember when I was a young teenager and passing those tanks on Slack Street on the way to Coonskin Park. That would have been about 1960. Those tanks looked rusted then and they sure have proven to be now!

  • vashti

    this should put an interesting spin on REp McKinley's coal ash bill. the sticking point for the environmentalist with Mr. Mckinley's bill has been the containment issues for the coal ash.

    also noticed that CBS's first news flash said the spill occurred in the Elf River in Charleston SC. Maybe this alert more folks to the fact that WV is a state. i would love to find the Elf river though i bet it could have magically fixed the problem.

    • Hillboy

      The Elf River flows through a pleasant Chinese community known as Ming Shores.

  • Carmen

    This so shows why West Virginia is in the horrid condition it is, from an over inflated DEP full of time clock punchers whose "daddy knew somebody" being totally inept. Whining about being victimized by Big Business, Trial Lawyers salivating and lining up by the hundreds to get their piece of the action, the Egomaniacal Kent Carper denying he was complicit in ignoring initial warnings, Being indignant that the National Press ignored them or spelled their name wrong and not giving more publicity to this event that in reality they should be ashamed. It is too late for them to realize that in order to get quality economic development they must offer a good quality of life, not bend over for every quick buck artist that comes to town. The positive is that it certainly secures Charleston's #1 Most Miserable City in the US