Shortly after 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection inspector Ryan Harbison began one of the DEP’s daily walk-around inspections of the Freedom Industries tank farm, the now-infamous site of the January chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water supply for 300,000 residents across the region.
When Harbison approached the riverbank at the northern end of the site along the Elk River — where a 120-foot-long, 4-foot-deep ditch is supposed to keep any potentially contaminated runoff from reaching the river — he spotted an obvious problem.
“I observed water spilling out of the collection trench and going into the river,” Harbison recalled during an interview on Friday. “That’s one of the things we keep a pretty close eye on.”
Harbison checked a pump that is supposed to transfer runoff from the trench to a temporary storage tank, and found it wasn’t running. He flipped the pump on, and then called his supervisor so DEP officials could alert West Virginia American Water, the state Bureau for Public Health and other officials. Then, Harbison discovered another big problem. No one from Freedom Industries was anywhere to be found.
“When I started looking for someone, there wasn’t anybody on site,” Harbison said.
Usually, when Harbison and other DEP inspectors arrive at Freedom’s gate, they sign in with a security guard. Not on Thursday. The guard wasn’t there, Harbison said. No one from Freedom showed up until about 5:40 p.m., more than a half-hour after Harbison discovered the containment trench had overflowed, according to Harbison.
Then, Friday evening, the DEP discovered another overflow incident at the same runoff collection ditch.
In a prepared statement, the DEP said water from the trench poured into the Elk River for about 50 minutes in an incident that coincided with a heavy rain over the city that started at about 5 p.m.
DEP officials weren’t sure how much water from the trench ended up in the river during Thursday’s incident. The prepared statement didn’t identify an amount involved in Friday’s overflow.
Initial test results of water just downstream at West Virginia American Water’s treatment and distribution plant detected no Crude MCHM —the main chemical involved in Freedom’s January leak — from Thursday’s incident. Two samples from Friday’s incident also showed non-detect results, and more data was expected this morning.
On Friday morning, state officials said Thursday’s incident alone pointed out several problems with the way Freedom Industries is handling the site cleanup, showing design errors and possibly insufficient staffing.
In an interview, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman had said his agency was already closely monitoring the site and its cleanup but would be looking to take additional steps to ensure the work is done safely and properly.
“This is a highly sensitive issue at a highly sensitive site,” Huffman said. “That’s why we’re there every day.”
In the Friday evening news release, Huffman was more blunt.
“To have this happen twice in two days is outrageous and unacceptable,” Huffman said in the release, issued shortly after 9 p.m. “Freedom and its environmental consultant should have a system in place to handle heavy rainfall.”
Huffman, who had earlier in the day said he wasn’t sure the DEP could fire Freedom’s consultant, added, “If a better system is not implemented immediately, the DEP will take action to bring in a more responsible contractor to handle it.”
The incidents Thursday and Friday were the latest in a string of mishaps related to the cleanup of the Freedom site. On Jan. 30, Freedom contractors damaged an underground pipe, releasing MCHM into the air. On March 14, the DEP cited the same Freedom contracting firm, Diversified Services, for spilling MCHM into a drainage ditch at Diversified’s headquarters in St. Albans.
“Our experience with these guys has caused us to be more vigilant,” Huffman had said Friday morning.
At about the same time Harbison was discovering the Thursday trench overflow, West Virginia American Water was issuing a news release to tout its completion of a project to change the water-treatment plant’s filters, which had been leaching small amounts of MCHM collected during the January leak back into the region’s drinking water.
Earlier Thursday, the DEP had issued its own news release, to announce that Freedom contractors likely would begin tearing down chemical storage tanks at the site before the end of the month. Ten of the 13 tanks at the site are slated for demolition. The other three are being used to temporarily store the site’s runoff. Freedom officials have said their target date for the tank demolition to start is June 25. Freedom is conducting the cleanup, with oversight from the DEP.
In its news release Thursday, the DEP noted that once the tanks are gone, additional studies will be needed to determine how bad the soil and groundwater at the site is contaminated, and exactly what cleanup work is needed. Estimates of the potential costs — and what money Freedom will have available for the work — have not been made public, and budgets being submitted by the company to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson are under seal.
Bankruptcy court filings, though, show that parties who are owed money by Freedom have already been complaining that work by Freedom’s remediation contractor, Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc., is coming in far in excess of what’s been budgeted. One court filing complained that CEC staffers are spending too much time at the site without explaining what they are doing.
The DEP’s Huffman, though, noted that his agency wants to see the site properly staffed with cleanup contractors on site, especially when it rains or has been raining, to monitor things like the containment trench and avoid problems like the on that occurred Thursday.
Mark Welch, Freedom’s chief restructuring officer, insisted in email messages Friday that the containment trench did not overflow on Thursday. Welch blamed that incident on heavy rain. He said no water escaped from the trench and that what the DEP inspector saw was “surface runoff and not from the pump, trench or pit.”
Harbison, the DEP inspector, said it wasn’t raining when he discovered the problem, and that a heavy rain on Thursday didn’t start until later, once he had the pump running again.
Huffman and Harbison said the problem Thursday occurred, at least in part, because a float valve in the trench, intended to turn on the pump when the water in it reaches a certain level, was set too high, so that it would allow the trench to overflow without the pump coming on.
DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said Freedom’s cleanup workers “had apparently been experimenting to try to find an optimal level” for the float valve. The workers didn’t want the pump kicking off and on “because they didn’t want the motor to burn up,” she said.
Gillenwater said there is not “a formal design” but an “evolving design” for the trench. The trench, located in a narrow area between chemical tanks and the riverbank, was initially about 70 feet long. It was later extended to about 120 feet long. The width varies, but is generally about four feet. Crews dug it down to a clay bottom, Gillenwater said, but there also is a liner.
“There was no real design for capacity,” Gillenwater said in an email. “The key is the pump. Once the water level gets to a certain level, the pump is supposed to pump out the stormwater.”
During Friday’s overflow, though, the DEP inspector who discovered the problem said the pump was operating but apparently could not keep up with the heavy flow of rainwater. A backup pump was activated to increase pumping capacity, the DEP said.
A news release from the DEP on Friday afternoon said agency inspectors had issued two formal notices of violation related to the Thursday incident. One of the NOVs alleges that the company allowed a discharge from an unpermitted outlet. The other alleges that Freedom has not complied with the terms and conditions of an order to implement an approved sump-management program.
In that release, the DEP said a sample of the runoff water from the trench showed 2.78 parts per million of MCHM. The DEP and West Virginia American have said testing of other samples, taken from raw water and treated water at the company’s Elk River plant, detected no MCHM.
Additional NOVs are being issued related to Friday’s overflow and will include a requirement that Freedom — by noon today — provide the agency with “an outline of how the system will be redesigned to prevent future overflows,” DEP officials said.
In a prepared statement, water company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said six samples of raw and treated water take after the Thursday incident came back with non-detect results, based on an ability for the equipment at the company’s Huntington plant to detect concentrations as low as 10 parts per billion.
The DEP reported that four samples each of raw and treated water tested by Research Environmental & Industrial Consultants Inc., also known as REIC Labs, also came back with no MCHM detected, based on Beckley-based REIC’s ability to detect down to 2 parts per billion of MCHM.
Samples also are being sent to Eurofins Lancaster Laboratories, which can detect much smaller concentrations, down to 0.38 parts per billion of MCHM, Jordan said. Those results were not available Friday.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.