CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A lead investigator with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said people in and around West Virginia’s capital city are more than a week into experiencing what happens when a chemical storage facility is located near a water source and something goes wrong.
Freedom Industries sits along the Elk River, less than two miles upstream from the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant which supplies more than 300,000 West Virginia American Company customers in parts of nine West Virginia counties.
“It’s one that is fraught with the possibilities of something bad happening and, in more cases than not, nothing bad happens. In those rare instances where there is a release, post incident, the hindsight provides any number of opportunities missed,” said Johnnie Banks of such a location.
Banks and his team arrived in Charleston, earlier in the week, to start the investigation into the leak of crude MCHM, a coal processing chemical, that prompted a week-long do-not-use water order in some areas.
In the coming weeks, Banks said the investigation will include a forensic examination of the tank where the chemical was being stored prior to the leak.
In a Friday report, “The Charleston Gazette” cited a source close to Freedom Industries who claimed the leak of MCHM was the result of a broken pipe near the company’s Charleston site that pushed water under the company’s tank storage area along the Elk River.
The source told the newspaper the water froze in record cold temperatures last week and punctured the tank, from below, when it expanded. An estimated 7,500 gallons of crude MCHM leaked from the tank and made it into the river on Jan. 9 after a secondary containment failed.
On Friday’s MetroNews “Talkline,” Banks said any comment he made about that report would be speculation. “At this stage of our investigation, we haven’t made any determinations of that nature,” he said.
In Washington, D.C., U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is co-sponsoring two bills with U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that would make those responsible for a chemical spill, even if the material is not deemed hazardous, pay for its cleanup and provide more funding for states and agencies tasked with cleanup.
“Last week’s enormous chemical spill poisoned the water supply for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians, devastated families and shuttered schools, businesses. That crisis demands an immediate response,” said Rockefeller said in a statement.
“Our families and businesses have suffered tremendously and have born significant costs already. This bill corrects a glaring hole in our law that leaves residents vulnerable to shouldering the cleanup costs associated with a non-hazardous chemical spill.”
Schatz joined the effort because of a 233,000 gallon molasses spill that happened in Honolulu last year.
Banks said, as part of the West Virginia investigation, the CSB will offer recommendations for changes to prevent or better respond similar leaks in the future. His agency has done so in the past, following a 2008 explosion that killed two workers at Bayer and 2010 after an incident that claimed the life of a worker at DuPont, but not all of the recommendations were followed.
“We’re hoping that there will be a reinvigoration of activity around providing more oversight for facilities such as this,” he said.