Expert says tank leaked for at least 20 hours
CHARLESTON, WV -- A faulty storage tank near the Elk River leaked a chemical cocktail for at least 20 hours, according to an updated analysis from Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute.
More time leaking means more of a chance the chemical entered the river earlier than Jan. 9, the day officials learned of the spill.
"That's a pretty safe bet," Ziemkiewicz said Tuesday afternoon.
Using a math formula, Ziemkiewicz recently told state lawmakers it took at least 15 hours for the chemicals involved in the Freedom Industries spill to leak out of a tank.
At the time officials thought as much as 7,500 gallons seeped out of a reported one-inch hole in the bottom of a steel tank. Monday night the DEP announced new Freedom calculations show more than 10,000 gallons could have leaked from the tank.
"That 20 hours is a minimum," Ziemkiewicz said.
"And in reality, the ground could have been saturated with MCHM for months and months in advance of the actual material welling up around the base of the tanks."
The state Department of Environment Protection received the new calculations from Freedom on Thursday, according to the letter submitted by Freedom President Gary Southern.
But they didn't release the data until Monday because they were busy working with Freedom on an order to dismantle the tanks at the site, DEP spokesman Tom Aluise said.
Complaints of a black licorice odor led DEP workers to inspect Freedom's site on the Elk River on Jan. 9. They found pooled chemicals — later determined to be crude MCHM and PPH — seeping through an old concrete wall and into the river.
The chemicals made their way roughly 1.5 miles downstream to a West Virginia American Water Co. treatment plant. By the end of the day 300,000 West Virginians were told they shouldn't drink their tap water.
Aluise said the DEP investigation is ongoing, so officials are "not ready to say" when exactly the leak started or the chemical entered the river.
Alluding to continued trust issues between the company and the state, Aluise said the DEP also isn't ready to take Freedom's new calculations as gospel.
"These are just numbers they gave us," he said.
"We're not saying they're right or wrong, they're just numbers they gave us."
Southern outlined in his letter how Freedom determined the larger estimate.
On Jan. 6, three tanks held 113,621 gallons of crude MCHM, each with a storage capacity of about 46,000 gallons, Aluise said. The tank that leaked held 34,466 gallons until Jan. 8, when the company removed 3,246 gallons as part of a shipment.
That left 110,375 gallons total in the three tanks on the day the spill was reported, according to Freedom.
After moving the chemical and some contaminated water from the Elk River site, Freedom "measured" 100,233 gallons of crude MCHM mixed with PPH stored at the new location. It also includes "residual released" chemicals that were "recovered," according to the letter.
The DEP previously said Freedom moved all of these chemicals and contaminated water to the company's Nitro location, called Poca Blending LLC. Southern's letter states the company was also storing some of the chemical at a property "adjacent" to the Poca Blending site as of last week.
The Nitro site doesn't have adequate emergency containment measures and some of the chemical is still sitting in tanks deemed inappropriate by the DEP. Aluise said he didn't know how much of the chemical was stored at the adjacent property.
"Freedom confirmed to us that it had entered into a lease agreement with the property owner," Aluise said.
"We make daily visits to Poca Blending and this adjacent property."
Although the letter states Freedom plans to ship some of the contaminated water from the Nitro site to the Big Run Landfill in Ashland, Ky., Aluise said, "Apparently, that's not going to happen."
The letter also describes ongoing efforts to remediate the site of the spill.
As of Jan. 20 the company had removed about 270,000 gallons of other chemicals from the Elk river site. There was still more than 1 million gallons stored in as many as 14 other tanks as of that date, according to the letter.
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Ziemkiewicz described his formula as "crude," but it provides some context for the amount of time the tank could have leaked.
The formula divides the 10,000 gallon estimate by a "flow rate" of about 8.22 gallons per minute.
He calculated the flow rate using a variety of factors, including the "head pressure" of the chemical's weight pushing down toward the hole, as well as pressure and resistance from other substances outside, like dirt or other fluids.
"The more head pressure you have, the faster your product wants to leave the hole," he explained.
The formula assumes the chemicals' density — 0.88 grams per milliliter, compared to 1 gram per milliliter for water, he said — is the same as water, a negligible difference.
The 20-hour estimate also assumes the DEP accurately reported the size of the hole, and the entire hole appeared at once. But the sudden appearance of a one-inch hole is unlikely, Ziemkiewicz said.
Water company officials have said the filtration system at the Charleston plant wasn't overwhelmed with the chemical until 4 p.m. Jan. 9.
Professor Anthony Szwilski, Director of the Center for Environmental, Geotechnical and Applied Sciences at Marshall University, agreed.
"Sometimes that hole might extend and that rate may change, just like a dam break," Szwilski said.
Although he said he had not done similar calculations, Szwilski said he's worked with Ziemkiewicz before and he's an expert.
Like the DEP, Ziemkiewicz downplayed the idea that extreme cold weather played a significant role in how long the chemical leaked.
"I'm willing to say the ground underneath the tank probably has never frozen, not in this climate," he said. "And having a couple days of minus-zero weather is not going to change that fact."
While the temperature did dip as low as minus 3 degrees in the days before the discovery of the leak, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded temperatures in the 50s at nearby Yeager Airport on Jan. 5 and 6.
On Jan. 9 the temperature reached 48 degrees, according to the NOAA data.
"If the stuff in the tank froze, then my guess is that it wouldn't have leaked," Ziemkiewicz added. "It would have been solid."
DEP officials have said the chemical has the ability to freeze, and there was a small amount of water in the tank.
Both Ziemkiewicz and Szwilski said there are still plenty of details that remain unknown surrounding the leak. It's still clear to both that the leak never should have happened.
"It shouldn't be taking us by surprise," Szwilski said.
"Of course, where you get an incident like this, then it tends to force changes."
The state Senate unanimously approved a bill Tuesday that would institute more regulations for aboveground storage tanks and enhance emergency preparedness measures for local officials and water companies.