So, when did the Charleston water emergency really start? We don’t know.

For more than six months, we have heard regulators, politicians and the media claiming that the contamination of WV American Water Company’s water started on Jan. 9, 2014 when large amounts of Freedom Industries’ MCHM/PPH were first noticed leaking into the Elk River.  This past week, US Chemical Safety Board investigator Johnnie Banks reviewed the current status of the CSB’s investigation into the spill and revealed that at least one of the Freedom Industries tanks had been leaking the chemicals before Jan. 9.

Mr. Banks used a Power Point presentation (the slides on the Freedom spill begin on slide 39) at the public meeting last Wednesday in Charleston.  Here is the relevant slide, pointing to leaks in two tanks that had been leaking before January 9:

Preliminary Findings

•Tank 397, another tank also containing the MCHM and PPH mixture, had a hole penetrating the bottom of the tank similar to the holes identified in Tank 396, the tank involved in the release.

•Due to extensive corrosion the CSB suspects that the leaks existed prior to January 9th

Here is the way Ken Ward described the issue in his story in the Charleston Gazette:

Citing “extensive corrosion,” federal investigators said an MCHM chemical storage tank at the Freedom Industries site along the Elk River likely was leaking prior to the Jan. 9 spill that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 people across the region.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigators said Wednesday they aren’t sure how long Tank 396 could have been leaking, or if material from it was contained in soil, or if additional chemicals from the tank made their way into the river prior to the day state inspectors discovered a spill while investigating a citizen complaint of a licorice-like odor in the area.

Johnnie Banks, the team leader on the CSB investigation of the Freedom spill, said agency officials are collecting soil samples and performing additional analysis that might help answer those questions.

The day after Mr. Banks made his presentation in Charleston, the Gazette ran a story by Lydia Nuzum that reported impacts of a possible spill on January 6, three days before the blowout on the banks of the Elk River.

Karan Ireland first noticed a strange smell in her upstairs shower on Jan. 6, but didn’t associate it with licorice, or, at that time, with crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, the chemical that came into the public eye three days later, when a chemical leak at Freedom Industries contaminated the Elk River and the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians.

Ireland, an Edgewood resident, said she became sick soon after taking a shower Jan. 6, and experienced a deep cough, chills and nausea — symptoms local, state and federal health officials would later associate with exposure to Crude MCHM.

“I went to bed thinking I’d come down with the flu,” she said. “I was still in bed the morning of Jan. 9, and on Facebook, I started seeing people saying ‘what is that smell in Edgewood?’ As the day went on, we learned about the chemical leak. I know correlation doesn’t equal causation, but I’ve had a dozen friends leave the state since the incident, and I can’t say it’s because of the water; I can only speculate.”

Ireland’s experience is consistent with new preliminary reports from the Chemical Safety Board that indicate the leak at a tank at the Freedom Industries facility was likely caused by “widespread corrosion,” and may have been entering the Elk River before initial reports Jan. 9. Ireland was one of several members of the community who attended a board meeting of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department on Thursday to discuss ongoing efforts to identify the impact of the leak on the nine counties directly affected by it.

Diagrams of tanks 395, 396 and 397, the three tanks Freedom Industries used to store MCHM-PPH showed multiple corrosion points, according to Nasandra Wright, director of environmental health services for the KCHD. There was a particularly large hole in the floor of T-395, Wright said, and more investigation will be necessary to determine the exact causes and possible duration of the leak.

“The problem now becomes ‘when did the leak start?’ ” Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief health officer for the KCHD, said.

So far, all of the investigations of the Freedom spill have assumed a start date of Jan. 9.  There is no public report of WV public health or DEP investigations attempting to determine the extent or impacts of leaks of MCHM/PPH from the Freedom site before Jan. 9.

Of course, the biggest failure in this situation was WV American Water’s lack of a source water protection plan and the company’s failure to protect its customers by monitoring the chemicals in the water it was taking in from the Elk River.  How much MCHM/PPH (or any other dangerous chemicals) were entering WV American Water’s treatment plant before Jan. 9?  No one knows, because WV American Water wasn’t doing its job.

The fact is that no one who had responsibility for protecting West Virginia’s safe drinking water was doing his or her job before January 9.  Look at slide 52 from the CSB Power Point:

Preliminary Findings

•The CSB found no record of inspections performed on the tanks prior to the January 9, 2014 release.

•There was a lack of engineering inspections, and uncertain inspection frequency or rigor of inspections.

•Holes on the roofs likely provided a source for corrosion inducing water into the tanks.

The WV DEP was called to the Freedom site a number of times before Jan. 9 following complaints by neighbors about the smells coming from the tanks.  DEP inspectors apparently never required Freedom employees to produce inspection reports on the tanks.  The DEP did no tank inspections itself at Freedom.  DEP inspectors apparently accepted Freedom employees’ claims that the smells were coming from trucks loading or unloading chemicals from the tanks.  We know now that the tanks were leaking continuously from their roofs long before Jan. 9.  Not only did those roof leaks probably cause the corrosion of the tank bottoms, but the roof leaks also allowed constant chemical releases into the air.  The Freedom tanks had no internal caps on their contents to limit these kinds of vapor leaks.  This is a monumental regulatory failure by the WV DEP.

As Mr. Banks pointed out:

Mr. Banks added, “We are also trying to pin down the installation dates for the tanks to review their manufacturing and service history. Whatever the governing regulations, and whatever the precise failure mechanism, companies have a responsibility to operate in a safe manner. Not inspecting corrodible steel aboveground storage tanks proved to be an accident waiting to happen.”

The contamination of WV American Water’s system was not a question of “if” it was a question only of “when”.  WV DEP was not doing its job and the water company was not monitoring the safety of the water it was selling to the public.  What could possibly go wrong?

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