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
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
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
“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
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
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.