DEP Inspectors Describe Early Scene at Freedom Leak Site
13 January 2014
By Ken Ward Jr.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When state inspectors arrived at the Freedom
Industries tank farm late last Thursday morning, they found a
400-square-foot pool of clear liquid had collected outside a white
tank marked as number 396.
A 4-foot wide stream of the liquid -- thicker than water, but not
as heavy as syrup -- was flowing across the bottom of a
containment dike. The flow disappeared right at the joint where
the dike's wall connected to its floor.
Freedom Industries had set up one cinder block and used one
50-pound bag of some sort of safety absorbent powder to try to
block the chemical flow, state Department of Environmental
Protection inspectors say.
"This was a Band-Aid approach," said DEP air quality inspector
Mike Kolb. "It was apparent that this was not an event that had
In an interview Monday with The Charleston Gazette, Kolb and DEP
air quality engineer Dan Bauerle described discovering the leak of
"Crude MCHM" that fouled the drinking water supply that serves
hundreds of thousands of West Virginians.
Kolb and Bauerle provided new details of what they found at the
site, and also revealed that the facility had been the subject of
at least one odor complaint "several years ago" that DEP officials
determined at the time was unfounded.
In public briefings so far, DEP officials have explained that the
Elk River leak last week was identified only after they received
odor complaints from area residents at about 8:15 a.m. Thursday.
When those complaints -- and notice of the odor from two different
DEP employees -- came in to the agency's Kanawha City
headquarters, Kolb and Bauerle were dispatched to investigate.
They discovered odors that rated as "objectionable" under state
standards at spots where Bigley Avenue intersects Westmoreland
Drive and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Based on the smell, the pair say, they suspected something had
happened at Freedom Industries.
While DEP has said it hasn't inspected the site since 1991, when
it was owned by Pennzoil, Kolb and Bauerle said Monday that the
agency had looked into a previous odor complaint at the site and
another odor complaint in St. Albans related to a company called
Diversified Services, which handles shipping of materials for
Kolb and Bauerle arrived at the operation shortly after 11 a.m. In
the parking lot, they met Kanawha County fire coordinator C.W.
Sigman, whose office was also looking into residents' odor
The DEP officials went to the office, where Dennis P. Farrell, who
identified himself as president of the company, greeted them. They
told Farrell about the odors and asked if the facility was having
"He said as far as he knew this was a busy time of year. They were
just handling a lot of trailers," Kolb said. "As far as he knew,
there weren't any problems."
The DEP officials asked Kolb to show them around the facility.
When they went outside, an employee asked to speak to Farrell.
After that conversation, Farrell told the DEP officials there was
a problem, and led them to tank 396.
There, the DEP officials said, they found a 400-square-foot pool
of chemical that had leaked from the tank into a block containment
area. Pressure from the material leaking out of the tank created
what DEP officials called an "up-swelling," or an artesian well,
like a fountain of chemical coming up from the pool.
They saw a 4-foot-wide stream of chemicals heading for the
containment area's wall, and disappearing into the joint between
the dike's wall and floor.
Initially, no one saw the chemical pouring into the Elk River. DEP
officials say that part of the river still had a layer of ice on
top, which made the spill difficult to notice.
Once the DEP officials saw the leak though, they called their
superiors and got DEP's emergency response, water pollution and
hazardous materials crews headed to the site.
In one enforcement order, DEP officials allege that the company
had taken "no spill containment measures" prior to agency staffers
arriving at the site and discovering the leak.
"The facility did not give any real attention to containment,"
State and county officials have described the Freedom facility's
spill containment dike as full of cracks and holes.
"It's a very old dike," Sigman said. "If it had been my home's
foundation, I would be concerned."
DEP emergency response director Mike Dorsey has said he learned
the company at some point had put $1 million into an escrow
account for repairs. It's not clear when that account was created
or what -- if any -- timeline Freedom officials had for the fixes.
But questions continue about how Freedom's problems received no
attention from regulators prior to the leak.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has said that the facility fell
through the cracks. It made no chemicals on site, Huffman said,
and was not regularly inspected because it only stored and shipped
But DEP officials have given the facility a storm water plan,
under a "general permit" program that is less rigorous than
obtaining a site-specific pollution permit.
Under the permit, the company was required to have a spill
prevention plan and to immediately report potentially dangerous
spills to the state. DEP had authority to inspect the site to
ensure compliance with the period.
DEP officials, though, say that Freedom Industries didn't report
the leak to them until 12:05 p.m. Thursday, and even then did so
only because DEP officials told them they had to do so.
"Freedom Industries was explicitly required to report the spill
immediately to DEP," said Jennifer Chavez, a lawyer with the group
Earthjustice. "The company's failure to do so was a violation of
its storm water permit."
At the federal government's National Response Center, which takes
reports of hazardous material spills around the country, a report
is on file about the incident. But officials there say it didn't
come from Freedom Industries or from West Virginia American Water.
Instead, National Response Center staff typed up the report based
on local media reports pulled from the Internet.
On Monday, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin issued a second statement,
repeating his promise of a criminal investigation, and said the
probe would include issues about the company's compliance with
chemical accident reporting laws.
"As the immediate water crisis begins to ease and West Virginians
regain access to drinkable water, I want to make three things
clear," Goodwin said.
"One, my office will continue working as quickly as possible to
find out exactly what happened here, including the complete
timeline of the release and what was done -- or not done -- before
and after it," he said. "Two, if our investigation reveals that
federal criminal laws were violated, we will move rapidly to hold
the wrongdoers accountable. And three, companies whose facilities
could affect the public water supply should be on notice: If you
break federal environmental laws, you will be prosecuted. Our
drinking water is not something you can take chances with, and
this mess can never be allowed to happen again."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.