Why Wasn't There a Plan?
Key players knew of potential for Elk River spill
11 January 2014
By Ken Ward Jr.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last February, Freedom Industries sent state
officials a form telling them the company stored thousands of
pounds of a coal-cleaning chemical called
4-methylcyclohexanemethanol in the storage tanks at its Etowah
The facility, along the Elk River not far from downtown
Charleston, is about 1.5 miles upstream from the intake West
Virginia American Water uses to supply drinking water for 300,000
residents across the capital city and the surrounding region.
Freedom Industries filed its "Tier 2" form under the federal
Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. State
emergency response officials got a copy. So did emergency planners
and responders from Kanawha County.
Under the law, government officials are supposed to use chemical
inventory information on Tier 2 forms, like Freedom Industries',
to prepare for potential accidents.
Armed with the forms, they know what facilities could explode,
where large quantities of dangerous substances are stockpiled, and
what industries could pose threats to things such as drinking
water supplies. They can plan how to evacuate residents, fight
fires or contain toxic leaks.
On Thursday morning, an unknown amount of the chemical leaked from
one of Freedom Industries' tanks into the Elk River. By late
afternoon, West Virginia American Water was warning residents
across a nine-county region not only not to drink their water, but
also not to use it for anything except flushing toilets or
Now, all manner of federal, state and local agencies are rushing
to truck in water and otherwise see to residents' needs, following
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's declaration of a "state of emergency" and
President Obama's order to provide federal assistance.
Those same agencies and public officials, though, have said they
know little about the chemical involved. They're all acting a bit
surprised that this mystery substance was being stockpiled so
close to a crucial water intake, and shocked that something like
this could have happened.
Water company officials are equally puzzled. For example, West
Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre told reporters on
Friday that his company didn't know much about the chemical's
possible dangers, wasn't aware of an effective treatment process,
and wasn't even sure exactly how much 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol
is too much.
"We're still trying to work through the [material safety data
sheet] to try to understand the risk assessment of this product,"
McIntyre said during a Friday-morning news conference. "We don't
know that the water is not safe. But I can't say that it is safe."
McIntyre said his company hadn't at that point had any contact
directly with Freedom Industries, and he wasn't able to identify
any previous efforts by the two firms to work together on
emergency response planning.
"I can't answer that question," McIntyre said when asked about
such planning. "I don't have that information."
Fred Millar, a longtime chemical industry watchdog in Washington,
D.C., said the lack of better planning was an example of how the
landmark emergency response law hasn't been properly enforced
around the country.
"Obviously, the whole idea of the chemical inventory reports is to
properly inform local emergency officials about the sorts of
materials they might have to deal with," Millar said Friday. "It's
just head-in-the-sand to be ignoring this type of threat."
Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know
Act following the deaths of thousands of people in a Union Carbide
chemical leak in Bhopal, India, and a much smaller incident that
injured 135 Carbide neighbors in Institute. Since then, local
officials in both government and industry in the Kanawha Valley
have said that the area has one of the best emergency planning
processes in the country.
Asked late last week how much planning county officials had done
for a possible leak from Freedom Industries into the region's
water supply, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper was
"Not enough," Carper said. But Carper also pointed the finger at
the water company, saying West Virginia American certainly knew
Freedom Industries was there and should have prepared for an
accident like this one.
As the state of emergency continues, a wide variety of elected
officials and government agencies are issuing statements to
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for
example, sent out a news release to remind employers that they
must provide potable water for drinking and hand-washing in the
OSHA said it started an inspection Friday morning at Freedom
Industries to "assess any potential worker safety and health
issues related to the incident."
But the release also noted that the operation "does not have OSHA
history," meaning -- as confirmed by a review of OSHA data -- that
federal workplace safety officials have never inspected the site.
OSHA inspectors started to examine the facility in November 2009
as part of a program of special emphasis looking at accidents that
prompted amputations, records show. But they discovered that
Freedom Industries was in the wrong industry classification for
that program, and they never did the inspection, said OSHA
spokeswoman Lenore Uddyback-Fortson.
Terri White, a regional spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, said in a prepared statement that the EPA had
deployed personnel to assist with water sampling and to offer
"additional assistance" to the state. But White refused to make
any EPA officials involved in the effort available for an
During a news conference Friday, Tomblin had harsh words for
Freedom Industries. "This discharge of pollutants is
unacceptable," the governor told reporters.
Since the discovery of the leak on Thursday, state Department of
Environmental Protection inspectors have taken three different
enforcement actions against Freedom Industries over alleged water
and air pollution violations at the Elk River site.
But agency officials concede that their discovery of the leak
marked the first time DEP inspectors had been at the site in more
than 20 years.
Initially, the DEP reported that it had no permits for the
operation, and that Freedom Industries did not require any
permits. The DEP said the company did not manufacture any
products, that the operation was "chiefly a storage facility" with
"no emissions" and that "the materials it stores are not
Further review by DEP officials identified an industrial
stormwater permit held by the company, but agency spokesman Tom
Aluise said that the DEP had not inspected the site since 1991,
when it was a different sort of facility and was owned by a
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.