The Times West Virginian

January 25, 2014

Chemical Safety Board: ‘We should be worried’

Studies after Charleston spill are not ‘adequate to determine chronic effects over a long period of time’

By Pamela Pritt
(Beckley) Register-Herald

CHARLESTON — Crude MCHM and its companion chemical PPH should not be in drinking water at any level, the chair of the Chemical Safety Board said Friday morning.

Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso said those chemicals are created to be reactive with other chemicals and have the potential to affect human beings.

“We should be worried about it,” Moure-Eraso said.

The company that manufactures the chemicals — Eastman Chemicals produced the MCHM, Dow made the PPH — is responsible for testing the chemicals and providing answers about chemical safety guidelines, Moure-Eraso said. The company has “provided very little information,” he continued, but has conducted two or three small toxicological studies. Those studies are not “adequate to determine chronic effects over a long period of time,” the director said.

The CSB’s lead investigator, Johnnie Banks, said the manufacturer has repeatedly reported no data available on MCHM’s and PPH’s toxicology.

“This came as a surprise to us, that the chemicals have no information,” Banks said. Although he said he’d seen chemical spills before, this event is “striking because it affected such a large number of people.”

A cocktail of Crude MCHM and PPH, both chemical compounds used in the coal cleaning process, leaked from the bottom a pre-World War II era tank on the banks of the Elk River on Jan. 9. The chemicals leached through the soil, into a containment tank and then into the river a little more than half-a-mile above the sole water intake for 300,000 state residents.

The leak, detected because area residents smelled a “licorice-like” odor, caused a “do not use” order for tap water and a state of emergency for a nine-county region. The tanks belonged to Freedom Industries.

Eastman’s Safety Data Sheet for Crude MCHM warns that the chemical is harmful if swallowed, and describes first aid measures for eye and skin contact that include flushing with “plenty of water,” and then seeking medical attention. Measures for ingestion it says are “not relevant, due to the form of the product.”

As for accidental release measures, the SDS says “avoid release to the environment,” and says that spills should be absorbed with vermiculite or other inert material, then placed in a chemical waste container. “Prevent runoff from entering drains, sewers, or streams. Dike for later disposal,” the SDS says.

The SDS says MCHM’s chemical stability is not fully evaluated, but strong oxidizing agents are “incompatible materials.”

Moure-Eraso said the CSB is still in the preliminary stages of its investigation, and will examine a number of issues including: siting of chemical facilities in proximity to water sources; integrity of storage tanks, among them anti-leak designs and leak sensors; and the regulatory framework of the Kanawha Valley and the state.

The director said his agency’s report will include “lessons learned from this tragic accident to help prevent a similar event from occurring again.”

Banks said the entire investigation will take up to a year, causing Sen. Majority Leader John Unger D-Berkeley some angst about a Senate bill aiming to regulate above ground storage tanks. Unger said the leak at Freedom Industries is an “urgent” matter, but wants to have CSB recommendations included in the bill if possible.

“There’s a sense of urgency in our mission, as well,” Banks said. The lead investigator said urgent recommendations could be developed.

Moure-Eraso said the CSB investigated the Bayer CropScience pesticide manufacturing explosion in 2008. The report, released two years ago, made recommendations about developing a chemical release prevention program, which Moure-Eraso said “would have prevented the accident we’re dealing with today.”

National Guard Adjutant General Maj. Gen. James Hoyer reported to the Joint Committee on Water Resources, Friday as well.

Hoyer said the Guard will continue to take water samples from the Elk for another week and provide data from the sampling results as quickly as possible.

Hoyer said 20 million bottles of water had been distributed since the chemical spill on Jan. 9. The general credited volunteers from community organizations and churches for helping with the effort to distribute potable water to the valley residents.