Chemical agency begins closer look at MCHM tank

LAWRENCE PIERCE | Saturday Gazette-Mail
Contractors for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board on Thursday cut a door into the Tank 396 at Freedom Industries to begin the work of a more detailed inspection to determine what caused the Jan. 9 MCHM chemical leak.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Federal investigators this week began taking a much closer look at the Freedom Industries tank that leaked 10,000 gallons of the coal-cleaning chemical MCHM into the Elk River just upstream of the drinking water intake for 300,000 residents in Charleston and the surrounding counties.

On Thursday, contractors hired by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board cut a door into the side of the tank to allow a closer on-site inspection and so workers could remove portions of the tank for detailed examination in a laboratory. CSB officials hope to learn more about the condition of the tank and what caused the Jan. 9 leak.

“We’re anxious to get this material out and start the laboratory analysis,” said Johnnie Banks, the CSB’s lead investigator on the Freedom Industries leak.

CSB contractors were using a high-pressure water-sand cutting tool on the tank to avoid any of the sorts of safety problems the agency has found frequently occur when by so-called “hot work” using cutting torches, Banks said.

Banks said the CSB also will be looking at other tanks at the Freedom site, and trying to determine the general conditions of all of the vessels and if there was something specific about Tank 396 that played a role in the leak.

Kelley Gillenwater, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said this portion of the CSB’s on-site investigation is expected to take until about May 9, and work dismantling and removing Tank 396 is expected to begin May 12. DEP officials have warned that the dismantling of tanks at the site is likely to cause the return of the licorice-like odor of MCHM residents became all too familiar with after the January leak.

“There’s a general MCHM odor in the vicinity,” Banks said Friday. “When the tanks are being removed, there might be an increase in odor.”

During a congressional field hearing in February, the CSB unveiled a photograph that showed what appeared to be two small holes in the bottom of Tank 395, and also said a company evaluation three months before the leak found that other tanks at the Freedom site did not meet industry safety standards.

Eventually, the CSB will issue a report that will try to explain what caused the leak and what steps regulators and industry could take to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Earlier this week, the CSB held a public meeting in West, Texas, to release the preliminary findings of its investigation into the April 2013 West Fertilizer explosion and fire that killed 14 people and injured 226. CSB investigators reported finding shortcomings in existing regulations, standards and guidance at the federal, state and county level.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.

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