CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The air hung heavy with the odor of licorice. Most people recognized the smell, but were unaware where it was coming from or what it meant. The date was January 9, 2014 and C.W. Sigman, who was Deputy Director of Emergency Services for Kanawha County at the time, was well aware of what it was.
“It had that licorice smell and that’s how I knew what it was. I discovered it several years ago when we had an incident at another facility,” he told MetroNews that day. .
The smell was emitting from the Elk River and the source was traced to an out of the way series of above ground storage tanks on the riverbank upstream from downtown Charleston. The material, the public would soon learn, was called MCHM, a chemical used in the coal cleaning process. It had leaked out of a faulty tank at the site owned by Freedom Industries. The some of the chemical was captured inside a dike surrounding the tank, but a large amount seeped into the water.
“We load tanker trucks of this material on a regular basis and occasionally we’ve had reports of an odor previously,” said Gary Southern, the President of Freedom Industries at the time.
It would be Southern’s first and last press conference. He became a notorious figure in the affair when he attempted to downplay the impact and cut the conversation with reporters short. Local media refused to let him off the hook until answers were produced. Despite their digging into Southern, there was still very little known about the chemical. Even worse,a mile downstream the material had been pulled in to the West Virginia American Water Company’s Kanawha Valley Water Treatment plant.
Water company officials initially believed it would be treated with no problem once in the water plant and did not take the precaution of closing the intakes until it was too late. The licorice smell now wafted from the water taps of 300,000 homes in a nine county region. West Virginia American issued a DO NOT USE advisory and a long ordeal, which in some cases left residential customers without water for almost two weeks, began.
The incident happened just as the 2014 Regular Legislative Session was coming to order. Lawmakers were quick to react and passed two major bills during the 60 days to address drinking water issues.
“I get the question a lot of, ‘Are we any safer today? Can we be any more confident about our water supplies? Could this happen again?’ That’s a complicated question,” said Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
She was among those who lobbied hard for the changes in 2014. Lawmakers approved two key provisions that year. One was a required source water protection plan for all water companies in the state.
“Those are now in place across the state, but it was largely an unfunded mandate and there’s still a lot to be done,” Rosser said..
The other bill the 2014 legislature approved was a measure which placed heavy restrictions on Above Ground Storage facilities like the Freedom Industries site. The law was crafted to hopefully prevent future ruptures or condition the tanks at Freedom had fallen into to create the mishap. However, since 2014, Rosser said the storage tank law has been rapidly eroded.
“Eroded is a fair description. That one has seen a lot of changes over the course of several legislative sessions and over the course of many requests of many industries to be exempt from those standards,” she said.
Rosser and other clean water advocates will be back at the State Capitol this session, reminding everyone of what happened in 2014 and working to get new legislation put into place. Bills her organization is pursuing include a Clean Drinking Water Act to be introduced which focuses on the “PFAS” family of chemicals. The Water Resources Committee, which was formed in the wake of the Freedom Industries Spill, met this week and offered up several recommendations to lawmakers aimed at protecting the tap water in all parts of the state.