The Times West Virginian

January 26, 2014

Chemical spill: So many unanswered questions


Times West Virginian

— What can we say about the Elk River Crisis that hasn’t already been said?

Just a little history for those who might have missed the past three weeks:

On Jan. 9, crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol spilled from a tank owned by Freedom Industries and spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, upstream from the West Virginia American Water intake and water-treatment facility. A “do not use” water ban was in place from Jan. 9 through releases by zones starting on Jan. 13. The spill affected nine counties and 300,000 residents of the affected area.

Freedom Industries is a company that distributes chemicals to coal companies for processing and was founded in 1992. Just prior to the spill, on Dec. 31, 2013, Freedom Industries merged with three other companies, Etowah River Terminal, Poca Blending and Crete Technologies.

We know how it affected the residents of West Virginia. We watched people waiting in line for hours to get bottles of water to drink and cook with. We watched as a very large portion of southern West Virginia came to a dead halt, including the state capital and the legislative session. We collected water, easy to heat and prepare meals, waterless sanitizing wipes and sprays and more, and we loaded them into trucks and personal vehicles and headed down south.

We know what happened. And there are so many questions that won’t be answered for months or even years. There is not full resolution, and there may not be for some time.

But we asked our readers to weigh in on what they found to be the most disturbing news that came out of the Elk River contamination emergency. Readers logged on and cast their votes on www.timeswv.com last week. And here’s what they had to say:

* The tank could have been leaking long before it was reported — 14.16 percent.

On Jan. 9, it is estimated that 7,500 gallons of the chemical spilled into the Elk River. Apparently, the leak started before 8 a.m., as residents began to call officials after 8:15 a.m. to report a sweet licorice-like smell in the air. Firefighters and the Department of Environmental Protection eventually tracked down the smell by 11:10 a.m. Freedom Industries officials say their employees noticed the spill at 10:30 a.m., and they drained the tank and cleaned up the chemical surrounding the tank. The DEP said that they found a cinder block and a 50-pound bag of chemical absorbent powder covering the one-inch hole at the bottom of the tank.

So, how long had it been leaking? We may never know. But Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette reported that five years ago, residents complained of a similar smell in that area, though the DEP said that it was an unfounded claim.

* No one is quite sure the physical impacts of ingesting or using the water or the parts per million of the chemical deemed safe — 19.47 percent.

One thing we do know is that very little is known about the impact of MCHM has on the human body or even how it’s going to affect the aquatic life in the Elk River and its tributaries. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported that if ingested, the chemical could cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea, reddened/burning skin and/or eyes, itching and rashes.

* This shows how vulnerable our water system is — 31.86 percent.

So many have said that the next terrorist attack could come through contamination of water systems, which is why a great deal of money was invested post-9/11 toward securing facilities. Fairmont was among them. We can all see now how easy it would be to harm hundreds of thousands by placing a chemical in the source water of a treatment plant.

* Freedom Industries’ tanks had not been inspected since 1991 — 34.51 percent.

State environmental officials told CNN that Freedom Industry facility only had to have an industrial storm water permit and that it was last inspected in 1991. There was also an investigation in 2010 because of a smell there, that same licorice smell, though inspectors did not find anything. It was visited again in 2012 to make sure that no additional air or water quality permits were needed. Again, there are so many questions we just don’t have answers for. We hope they come.

In the mean time, let’s talk about something way, way less serious. Justin Bieber got into quite a bit of trouble while drag racing while under the influence of pills, drugs and alcohol last week in Florida. What should we tell the kids?

Log on. Vote. Email me or respond online.

Misty Poe

Managing Editor

mpoe@timeswv.com

@MistyPoeTWV