Prof: Crisis Could Have Been Stopped

Tanks should have been inspected

Morgantown Dominion Post
18 January 2014
By Davis Beard

CHARLESTON — The director of the WVU-based West Virginia Water Research Institute told legislators Friday morning that he believes federal measures are in place, and weren’t followed, that could have prevented the water crisis.

Professor Paul Ziemkiewicz told the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) Rule.

The EPA explains: The SPCC Rule provides requirements for oil spill prevention, preparedness and response to prevent oil discharges to navigable waters and adjoining shorelines. The rule requires specific facilities to prepare, amend and implement SPCC Plans.

The Dominion Post sent the EPA several questions regarding the rule and its application in this situation. EPA spokeswoman Helen DuTeau replied, “Along with other federal agencies, EPA is working closely with our West Virginia state and local partners to respond to the Freedom Industries incident. We are evaluating the full range of federal environmental authorities that may assist in responding to the environmental and public health risks, address any environmental violations, and minimize threats to our waters.”

This was the commission’s initial hearing in its investigation to discover the how and why of what happened and what legislative action is needed to prevent future incidents. This one “was a wake-up call to show our water resources are very vulnerable,” said co-chairman Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

Ziemkiewicz gave the panel a primer on MCHM — the chemical that leaked from the recently bankrupt Freedom Industries above-ground tank into the Elk River and flowed into West Virginia American Wat e r ’s system on Jan. 9 — and on what little is known about its possible effects.

MCHM is a detergent-like chemical used to wash coal, he explained. It’s considered both an alcohol and an oil.

As an oil, he said, it should be subject to the SPCC rule, and the site should have been subject to inspections. Inspection records are to be retained for three years. The rule requires documentation of the stored material and a sound secondary containment structure to hold fluids that leak from their primary tanks.

“The long and short of it is, this wouldn’t have been a problem if appropriate secondary containment would have been on site.”

Brian Stanley, with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, filled in the legislators on the technical aspects of maintaining and inspecting tanks and secondary containment.

It’s not known yet if corrosion played a role in the formation of the hole in Freedom’s tank, he said, but corrosion causes billions of dollars’ worth of damage around the country he said, and much of it is avoidable through proper care and inspections. There’s a science to cleaning, preparing and restoring tanks and containment structures, and inspectors require hundreds of hours of training.

There are no mandated state inspections of above-ground tanks, he affirmed. It’s up to the company to take care of its tanks.

Ziemkiewicz said it’s known that MCHM can irritate the eyes, skin and lungs, and can cause nausea and diarrhea. Not much is known about its toxicity. In response to legislator questions — all good ones, he acknowledged — he said it’s unclear how it will behave as it keeps flowing down the Ohio River. It’s not carcinogenic in itself, and doesn’t cause birth defects, but it’s unknown how it will react with chlorine, fluoride or other chemicals in the water.

No fish kill is evident, he said, so it may not pose a threat to aquatic life, though some research shows it could affect minnows and some smaller organisms. It appears, though isn’t totally certain, that it will move through the river system without sticking.

But, he said, it’s also unclear how the material will behave that’s already in the drinking water system. Water doesn’t just flow from the plant to the faucet. It’s stored in tanks and cisterns. When will all that flush out?

Unger and co-chairman Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, said hearings will continue for as long as necessary. The next is tentatively scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, when state administration officials will appear.