DEP considers an inventory of facilities in state
Right now the state Department of Environmental Protection doesn't have a list of facilities similar to the one that caused 300,000 people to go without tap water after a chemical leak.
At the request of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said the agency is looking at ways to more adequately regulate such facilities to lessen the risk of another spill.
That includes trying to inventory some of them, and possibly requiring they sit further away from "vulnerable assets."
"We're doing an inventory across the state of similar types of facilities where we have storage only and no chemical processes or manufacturing processes that would otherwise warrant a permit," Huffman said Monday during a press conference at the state Capitol.
Freedom Industries had the ability to store 4 million gallons of material at its Elk River facility, according to its website. As much as 7,500 gallons of a chemical called "crude MCHM" leaked through a hole in a tank Thursday morning, with an unknown amount making it into the river and contaminating the water supply for parts of nine counties.
The DEP never inspected the site. The agency only gives permits to sites where materials are produced or emitted. The only permit issued to Freedom was a storm water permit.
Because the DEP doesn't permit sites that store chemicals, Huffman said it didn't have a good gauge as to how many there were in the state.
The inventory is not yet underway, and there's no set timeline as to when it will begin, Huffman clarified after the press conference. It might not be an inventory of every single similar facility, either, Huffman said.
Once the process does start, it will help the DEP understand circumstances and conditions of different facilities to better craft any legislation.
"It would be a pointless effort if we wrote regulations and then it still didn't apply," Huffman said.
The Community Right to Know Act requires businesses like Freedom to file a report of inventoried chemicals with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
However, those reports provide little specifics about any particular site and can be hard to navigate across agencies, said Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
The filings, called "Tier II" reports, are submitted annually by any business that stores at least 10,000 pounds of a chemical defined as "hazardous" under the act. The report provides and inventory of chemicals stored at that facility.
About 9,500 facilities filed such reports last year, Messina said. A third of those are oil and gas wells, and there are at least 500 gas stations. The rest "run the gambit," Messina said.
"There's no way from looking at the reports to get a real sense of what the actual property is like," Messina said.
If a facility stores "extremely hazardous" materials, they must file a very detailed report. The crude MCHM stored at Freedom wasn't considered "extremely hazardous" for reporting purposes under the act, Messina said.
That leaves it open for a facility like Freedom to fall in a broad category that includes many other dissimilar operations.
"A facility could check that box off but look nothing like Freedom," Messina said, describing the reporting process.
Huffman said local emergency officials likely have an inventory of facilities, but DEP doesn't have immediate access to that information.
The agency is also looking at considering "set back" regulations. The change could increase the amount of space between a facility and a treatment plant, or a facility and a river, Huffman explained.
"Primarily what a setback does is, it provides you with an opportunity to respond," he said.
"It gives you enough distance between the potential risk and the vulnerable asset to be able to go in and respond with some kind of remediation or some kind of emergency response."
The Freedom facility is 1.5 miles from the West Virginia American Water treatment plant. More space could have helped create a buffer that would have lessen the chances of any chemicals making it into the local water supply, Huffman said.
There's no guarantee the DEP or governor will recommend law changes including set back provisions or more regulations of storage facilities, Huffman added.
Right now Huffman said there are at least three DEP employees at the Freedom site at any one time. Mike Dorsey, a different DEP official, said the company was communicating well with the state during the site remediation process.
No one from Freedom spoke at Monday's press conference.
A variety of state and federal investigations into Freedom's actions are still underway. The results could also affect any regulatory changes
Dorsey said the U.S. Chemical Safety Board arrived Monday morning. The CSB announced it would investigate the leak after U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., urged them to step in.
Multiple messages left with CSB officials were not returned.