The Times West Virginian

January 23, 2014

‘Problematic’ details emerge from Freedom

By Pamela Pritt
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Each day, it seems a new chapter is written in the story of Freedom Industries and its leak into the Elk River that tainted water for about 300,000 West Virginians.

On Tuesday, Freedom President Gary Southern told state officials that 300 gallons of a second chemical, polyglycol ether (stripped PPH), was also stored in the tank that leaked Crude MCHM into the river on Jan. 9.

While West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman says the revelation will not change the way DEP remediates the chemical storage site, the information revealed Tuesday is “problematic.”

Huffman said Wednesday at a press event held by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on another topic, that Southern has claimed he thought his company had stopped using PPH.

The information has brought state officials’ level of confidence in Freedom Industries to a new low.

On Wednesday morning, DEP ordered Freedom to disclose all materials spilled during a release from Storage Tank 396, giving a deadline of 4 p.m.

In a letter to DEP meeting that deadline and signed by Southern, Freedom reported, “PPH is added to the Crude MCHM to act as an ‘extender’ in that the Crude MCHM is available in limited, sporadic quantities.

“At the time of the release on Jan. 9, the blend in Tank No. 396, after extensive calculation, was approximately 88.5 percent Crude MCHM, and 7.3 percent PPH by weight and 4.2 percent water by weight. Our records and internal investigations indicate that there were no other materials in Tank 396 at the time of the release.”

Freedom did not initially disclose the presence of PPH in the tank. Failure to accurately report “the type or types and quantity or quantities of the material or materials therein” is a violation of state code.

“Having to order them to provide such obvious information is indicative of the continued decline of their credibility,” Huffman said.

“Very disappointing,” Tomblin said at Wednesday’s press conference. “Once again, it’s another one of those chemicals that very few people know anything about.”

The company didn’t list PPH as part of its latest hazardous chemicals inventory for the Charleston facility filed in February 2013. The form only requires companies to list chemicals deemed hazardous in quantities of 10,000 pounds or more. This chemical isn’t regulated as a hazardous material, said Mike Dorsey, chief of the state environmental agency’s homeland security and emergency response division.

State officials are working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts to test samples and ensure the water supply is safe, the bureau said.

Tests done right after officials lifted a ban on using tap water didn’t detect PPH, said Amy Shuler Goodwin, a spokeswoman for the governor.

“Given the small percentage of PPH in the tank and information suggesting similar water solubility as MCHM, it is likely that any amount of PPH currently in the water system would be extremely low,” the CDC’s statement said.

Freedom Industries has reached a bankruptcy court deal for up to $4 million in credit from a lender to help continue operations, an attorney said.

The deal lets the company continue paying its 51 employees in the short term, a biweekly payroll of about $172,000, said company attorney Mark Freelander. The company can also continue paying costs for environmental remediation and will have money for critical day-to-day administrative expenses, and can pay top vendors, according to the attorney.

Freedom Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Friday, freezing dozens of lawsuits against the company. Many are by local business owners who say they lost money during a water-use ban that lasted several days. State and federal investigations into the spill of the coal-cleaning chemical are continuing.

Southern said in bankruptcy court testimony that the 12 days since the spill have been “completely chaotic.”

Southern had said the company spent $800,000 last week to remedy environmental damage from the spill.

Chief Judge Ronald G. Pearson, who called the case one of the most unusual he’s seen, said Freedom Industries wouldn’t obtain all the protections it sought, since the company so far has offered very little financial information.

Approached after the bankruptcy hearing with questions about the second chemical, Southern walked away from reporters and said he had another meeting to attend.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.