West Virginia Inspectors Visited Chemical Spill Site Five Times
West Virginia Residents Complained of Strong Smell From Storage
Wall Street Journal
16 January 2014
By Kris Maher and Valerie Bauerlein
CHARLESTON, W.Va.—Environmental inspectors visited the site of
last week's chemical spill here at least five times since 2001,
but they primarily focused on air quality rather than factors that
might have figured in the accident that compromised the water
supply of 300,000 people, newly released records show.
The state air-regulation inspectors weren't required to look at
the storage of the chemicals, West Virginia officials said,
underscoring gaps in regulatory oversight of the facility. The
inspections—the number of which is higher than officials initially
reported—mainly were for routine reviews, but one occurred in
response to complaints of a strong licorice smell, the new cache
of records shows.
Inspectors visited the site of last week's chemical spill at least
five times since 2001, but they primarily focused on air quality
rather than factors that might have figured in the accident, newly
released records show. Valerie Bauerlein reports.
In 2010, inspectors traced the licorice odor to tanks storing
4-methylcyclohexane methanol, the records indicate. That is the
same substance authorities said leaked from a tank on the site
Jan. 9, breached a failed containment wall and entered the Elk
River, blanketing the city in the distinctive smell and
contaminating the water supply.
The trove of records from the state Department of Environmental
Protection contradicts reports from agency authorities soon after
the spill that inspectors hadn't been on the site, owned by
Freedom Industries Inc., since 1991.
Tom Aluise, a department spokesman, said Thursday that the agency
initially wasn't aware of the additional inspections.
Records show DEP inspectors visited the storage facility in 2002
as part of a voluntary cleanup done by the previous owner,
Pennzoil-Quaker State Co., which had sold the parcel to a company
connected to Freedom a year earlier. Inspectors from the agency's
air-quality division also conducted routine reviews in May 2005,
June 2009 and February 2012. No violations were found, according
to a review of the documents by The Wall Street Journal.
The storage site falls under state and local air-quality laws that
require permits for emissions that exceed certain amounts. No
permits were needed because the site didn't go over those limits,
the agency repeatedly found.
At the same time, a separate state groundwater protection rule
says the facility must regularly self-inspect its tanks, develop a
plan to protect against contamination and maintain a containment
area around tanks that can hold a spill for at least 72 hours. The
DEP isn't required to inspect the facility for violations of that
rule because the chemical isn't classified as hazardous waste
under federal law, revealing a gap in oversight.
Mr. Aluise, the DEP spokesman, said Freedom hadn't provided the
state with a groundwater protection plan.
A Freedom representative declined to comment Thursday.
Inspectors who visited the West Virginia chemical storage site
didn't focus on the tanks themselves.
The April 2010 inspection lends support to reports from nearby
residents who say they have smelled the chemical, at times
strongly, for several years.
Jerry Burgess, 71 years old, who lives near the site and whom
records show made the 2010 complaint, said he has smelled the odor
periodically since. He said he never called state officials again.
"I didn't get no results then, so what's the use of calling
again?" he said.
Robert Keatley, a senior engineer in the state DEP's air-quality
division, went to the site in April 2010 with another inspector in
response to the complaint. The odor didn't rise to the level of a
violation, Mr. Keatley said in an email to the Journal.
The agency determined a few months later that the site didn't
require a permit because MCHM emissions into the air were under
state limits for hazardous pollutants, according to a separate
He added that the agency's air-quality division has inspected the
site for more than 20 years, including when it was a bulk gasoline
terminal under Pennzoil. He said the 2010 odor complaint was the
only one the agency had received before last week.
"The odor could have come from the loading of the MCHM," Mr.
In a brief Jan. 10 news conference, Freedom President Gary
Southern also attributed prior reports of odors from residents to
normal handling of MCHM. "We load tank trucks of this material on
a regular basis and occasionally we've had reports of an odor
previously," he said.
The Jan. 9 spill has left many residents worried about what they
say is a history of strong smells they now believe were coming
from the Freedom facility.
Little is known about the health effects of the chemical, one of
thousands of industrial substances used with little federal
oversight. It can irritate skin, eyes and breathing tracts,
according to the available data. Its long-term effects haven't
been studied in humans, according to publicly available
information. Water is slowly being restored to the area as the
On Jan. 10, after the spill, inspectors cited the company for two
alleged air-pollution violations at the site.
Al Rock, who records show first reported the smell from the
chemical leak to the state DEP on Jan. 9, said in an interview
that he and his family has detected the odor on and off for about
two years. Mr. Rock, who sells commercial kitchen equipment near
the site, said the smell would sometimes linger in his warehouse
for hours and that it was sometimes so strong it made his brother
and wife nauseated.
"We've been fighting these smells for at least two years," he
Over that time, Mr. Rock said he tried to find the odor's source.
He said he had the gas company come to his property to check for a
gas leak and called a hotline to report a possible methamphetamine
lab in the area. He also thought one of the many chemical
manufacturers in the region might have been to blame for the odor.
On Jan. 9, Mr. Rock said he and his wife noticed the smell while
they were still in their car driving to their business. "As soon
as we hit that intersection, my wife got nauseous and her head was
hurting and she said she had an oily film in the roof of her
mouth," he said. "That's what motivated me to get on and call
Mr. Rock said he called the state DEP's air-quality hotline a
little after 8 a.m. and relayed his complaint, and was told a
staffer to handle the complaint would be in at 8:30 a.m. He called
again at 8:16 a.m. but decided not to leave a message. Then at
9:30 a.m. he called 911, he said.
Patricia Schott, 61, who lives near the Freedom facility, said she
has smelled the licorice odor for at least three years and
wondered about the potential health impacts. The family cooked and
bathed in their water on Jan. 9 during a seven-hour period after
the spill was discovered but before a water ban went into effect,
The next day, she said her 7-year-old granddaughter developed
severe diarrhea, wheezing and welts over her body and was taken to
a hospital, where she spent eight hours and was given
"We're afraid of the water still," Ms. Schott said.
—Alexandra Berzon contributed to this article.