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Freedom Industries failed to inspect or repair corroding tanks, and that as hazardous chemicals flowed into the Elk River, the water company and local authorities were unable to effectively communicate the looming risks to hundreds of thousands of affected residents, who were left without clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing, chemical board investigators said.

It all started on the morning of January 9, 2014, when an estimated 10,000 gallons of Crude Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) mixed with propylene glycol phenyl ethers (PPH Stripped) released into the Elk River when a 46,000-gallon storage tank located at the Freedom Industries site in Charleston, WV, failed, according to investigators at the Chemical Safety Board (CSB).

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As the chemical entered the river it flowed toward West Virginia American Water’s intake, located 1.5 miles downstream from the Freedom site.

The CSB’s investigation found Freedom’s inability to immediately provide information about the chemical characteristics and quantity of spilled chemicals resulted in significant delays in the issuance of the “Do Not Use Order” and informing the public about the drinking water contamination. For example, Freedom’s initially reported release quantity was 1,000 gallons of Crude MCHM.

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Over the following days and weeks, the release quantity increased to 10,000 gallons. Also, the presence of PPH in the released chemical was not made public until 13 days after the initial leak.

The CSB’s investigation found no comprehensive aboveground storage tank law existed in West Virginia at the time of the release, and while there were regulations covering industrial facilities that required Freedom to have secondary containment, Freedom ultimately failed to maintain adequate pollution controls and secondary containment as required.   

“Future incidents can be prevented with proper communication and coordination,” said CSB Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland. “Business owners, state regulators and other government officials and public utilities must work together in order to ensure the safety of their residents. The CSB’s investigation found fundamental flaws in the maintenance of the tanks involved, and deficiencies in how the nearby population was told about the risks associated with the chemical release.”

An extensive technical analysis conducted by the CSB found the MCHM tanks were not internally inspected for at least 10 years before the January 2014 incident. However, since the incident, there have been a number of reforms including passage of the state’s Aboveground Storage Tank Act, the CSB report said. Among other requirements, the new regulations would have required the tanks at Freedom to be surrounded by an adequate secondary containment structure, and require proper maintenance and corrosion prevention, including internal inspections and a certification process.

The CSB’s investigation determined nationwide water providers have likely not developed programs to determine the location of potential chemical contamination sources, nor plans to respond to incidents such as the one in Charleston, WV.

“The public deserves and must demand clean, safe drinking water,” said Supervisory Investigator Johnnie Banks. “We want water systems throughout the country to study the valuable lessons learned from our report and act accordingly. We make specific recommendations to a national association to communicate these findings and lessons.”

CSB Recommendations
The CSB report recommends the American Water Works Association, which represents thousands of water companies, communicate the findings from the CSB report to its members and to emphasize the importance of emergency planning and coordination with other entities to ensure timely notification of the public during contamination emergencies.

The CSB made recommendations to the American Water Works Company, Inc. (AW), which owns water systems in 16 states according to its website, including West Virginia American Water in Charleston. The CSB said AW should establish nationwide requirements for all of its treatment plants to inventory potentially hazardous chemicals stored in vulnerable water source areas, assessing the dangers and developing contingency plans to respond to contamination events.  

West Virginia American Water developed such a plan in June 2016 for the Kanawha Valley which the CSB recommends the company’s other plants should model.

The CSB’s report highlights lessons learned and is calling on aboveground storage tank facilities, government officials, drinking water utilities and public health agencies across the country to follow these recommended best practices in order to prevent similar incidents. These lessons include:  
• Above ground storage tank owners should establish regular inspection and monitoring and coordinate with nearby water utilities and emergency response organizations to ensure they provide adequate information about their stored chemicals for effective planning in the event of a leak. 
• State governments should act immediately to protect source waters and the public from unknown and potentially hazardous chemicals.
• Water utilities should engage with their Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) and/or State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) to obtain Tier II information. The information obtained should end up used to identify water intakes that could potentially be at risk of contamination from those chemicals in the event of a spill or release.
• Water utilities should assess the capabilities of their water treatment systems to contain potential leaks for all potential sources of significant contamination within the zone of critical concern.
• Where feasible, water utilities should ensure laboratory testing methods are available to detect the presence or measure the concentration of potential contaminants or classes of contaminants.
• Public health agencies should coordinate with water utilities, emergency response organizations and facilities storing chemicals near drinking water sources.

“The unacceptable chemical contamination of the Charleston, West Virginia drinking water system could have been prevented had the lessons and recommendations in our CSB report been adopted years ago,” Sutherland said. “Public officials and water companies must work diligently to identify potential risks and assure that the public’s access to safe drinking water is protected.”

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