CSB Chief Investigator Johnnie Banks
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A hard freeze and thaw may have contributed to the Freedom Industries chemical leak that created a water emergency in nine West Virginia counties earlier this year.
The information was released Wednesday by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s investigative team looking into the Jan. 9 leak of thousands of gallons of crude MCHM from the Freedom Industries site into the Elk River near the West Virginia American Water Kanawha Valley plant.
Lead investigator Johnnie Banks said there were two holes in the storage tank that leaked the chemical. He said a preliminary investigation shows the holes were created from the inside after water leaked in through holes in the top of the tank. The water caused corrosion on the bottom of the tank creating the holes. Banks said a hard freeze on Jan. 8 may have caused the leak to occur through those holes.
“It may have caused the material to freeze and when the thaw occurred there was a sudden release of material from that tank,” Banks said.
The investigative team said a simple inspection of the tank would have found holes in the top and the bottom but they have no paperwork that any were done. The tanks were looked last December when the site changed hands but Banks said that inspection of the tanks fell far short of industry supported standards.
Banks also said investigators found a hole in another tank that held MCHM at the site. He said the leak of the chemical may have occurred before Jan. 9. As the team conducts soil sampling in the months to come, Banks said he hopes to determine exactly when the leak began.
Yet Banks said other serious questions must be answered.
“The obvious one is how do you get a chemical plant 1.5 miles away from a water intake? How do you not have an inspection program for tanks in proximity to a system that fragile?”
The team hopes to have its investigation and recommendations concluded by the year anniversary of the spill. Banks said the team has taken a great interest in the Freedom Industries case because it impacted 300,000 residents who basically lost their water supply for a number of days.
“I’m very confident we will come up with answers that makes sense to people. Because that’s what people want at the end of the day,” he said.