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Freedom proposes runoff control steps in face of DEP orders, water company criticism

Freedom Industries proposed on Saturday to double its runoff pumping capacity and post contractors around the clock at its Elk River chemical tank farm, in response to demands from state regulators and in the face of strong criticism from West Virginia American Water following two spills at the site in as many days.

Mark Welch, Freedom’s chief restructing officer, said that officials from the bankrupt company “understand the importance of these issues” and are “taking action to address them.”

Welch repeated similar phrases in two letters sent Saturday to the state Department of Environmental Protection in response to separate sets of formal notices of violation issued to Freedom for allowing a runoff trench to overflow Thursday and Friday, sending potentially contaminated water pouring into the Elk.

Earlier on Saturday, the president of West Virginia American Water had said that the two stormwater spills on consecutive days at the Freedom Industries site were “completely unacceptable” and urged actions to prevent more incidents that could threaten his company’s regional drinking water intake, located just 1.5 miles downstream from Freedom.

“On behalf of our customers, we urge those managing this site to improve their containment system and take additional steps to prevent such incidents,” said Jeff McIntyre, president of the water company, whose plant along the Elk River near downtown Charleston serves 300,000 people across the region.

McIntyre’s comments came early Saturday morning in a press release issued to update the public on the results from testing six samples of raw and treated water taken at the plant Friday evening, following the second spill from an overflowing runoff containment trench at Freedom.

“Two back-to-back stormwater overflows at the Freedom Industries site are completely unacceptable, and although water quality was not impacted, such events only serve to erode customer confidence in the water supply,” McIntyre said.

Later on Saturday, West Virginia American spokeswoman Laura Jordan said that on Friday evening the company temporarily closed down pumps that draw Elk River water into the treatment plant as a precaution in response to the second incident at Freedom.

“This decision was made out of an abundance of caution as information provided by DEP indicated to us that Friday's incident was potentially a larger overflow of longer duration than Thursday's," Jordan said in an email. 

Jordan said the pumps were turned off at 6 p.m. and turned back on at 9 p.m.  “System conditions at the time allowed the plant to maintain operation and system pressure throughout our 1,900-mile distribution system without drawing raw water into the plant for this short period of time,” she said.

In its release, the water company said all six samples taken after Friday's incident came back showing “no detection” of MCHM, the main chemical involved in Freedom’s Jan. 9 spill, which contaminated the region’s drinking water supply. Company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said in an email that those tests were able to detect concentrations of MCHM as low as 10 parts per billion.

Test results on water samples taken after Thursday’s Freedom spill were also sent to a separate lab that can detect a much lower concentration — down to 0.38 parts per billion — but those results were not yet available. Tests by a lab that can detect as little as 2 parts per billion of MCHM had detected none of the chemical in water plant intake or outflow water following Thursday’s leak. A sample of water taken directly from the runoff trench had shown 2.78 parts per million of MCHM, officials said. One part per million is the same as 1,000 parts per billion.

After the January leak, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a screening level of 1 part per million of MCHM, saying that concentration would be safe for residents to drink. Later, an expert team hired by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin concluded the CDC number was wrong, and suggested a screening level of 120 parts per billion — about eight times more stringent than the CDC figure — was more appropriate. Other public health officials have said there is not nearly enough data on MCHM’s health effects to safely set any sort of exposure limits.

DEP officials have not been able to estimate how much stormwater poured out of the containment trench and into the Elk River during the Thursday and Friday incidents, which occurred less than a week after West Virginia American had completed changing the 16 MCHM-contaminated filters at its treatment plant, a move that eliminated one remaining source of chemicals from Freedom’s January leak.

The West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, the team hired by Tomblin, has said that additional home tap water testing is needed after the plant’s filter change to determine if there are other MCHM sources left in the regional water system or home plumbing equipment. In a survey taken in April, three months after the initial Freedom leak, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department found that just a little more than at third of Kanawha County residents had resumed drinking their tap water.

In a series of press releases, the water company has said that, upon learning of the Freedom spills, it took steps including increased water monitoring, stepped up treatment, and additional staffing to protect the public water supply. Water company officials said they were continuing to consult with the state Bureau for Public Health, which regulates public water systems. Bureau officials confirmed that the agency had not taken any of its own water samples, and was relying on the water company’s data.

Jordan said in an email that other steps, such as closing the plant’s water intake, would be considered if water company officials decide they are warranted.

“Because the amount of water that overflowed and the time of its potential travel downstream is unknown, the best recourse was to diligently monitor the river water for any odor while samples were sent off for analysis,” Jordan said after Thursday’s incident. “If we detect the odor or identify other information suggesting the presence of MCHM in the raw water, we will consider additional precautionary steps, including shutting down the treatment plant,” Jordan said.

The overflow incidents also occurred as Freedom’s contractors prepare to start, perhaps as soon as June 25, to tear down chemical storage tanks at the company’s facility. That move, part of the ongoing shutdown and remediation of the site, could uncover more contamination from soil and groundwater, threatening additional pollution of the river and MCHM releases into the air if the work is not handled properly.

After the second incident on Friday, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman ordered Freedom to submit “an outline” of how the company and its consultants and contractors plan to prevent future containment trench overflows. The trench overflows are the latest in a series of incidents involving the Freedom site and contractors Freedom hired to perform the site cleanup.

“If a better system is not implemented immediately, the DEP will take action to bring in a more responsible contractor to handle it,” Huffman said in a prepared statement.

DEP is overseeing the cleanup under an enforcement agreement reached with Freedom under the company’s state Clean Water Act permit. Freedom’s spending on the remediation is also controlled by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson, as part of the company’s bankruptcy proceeding. Pearson has sealed some key budget records that might reveal how much the company expects to spend on the project and whether there is enough money available to finish the work properly.

The 120-foot long containment trench, a ditch between chemical storage tanks and the riverbank, was built at the northern edge of the Freedom site to try to collect any stormwater runoff, and avoid having that runoff carry pollution from the site’s soil or groundwater into the river. A pumping system is supposed to ensure that the trench doesn’t overflow, by pumping stormwater that collects in the trench into a temporary storage tank for later disposal off site.

But on Thursday, a DEP inspector discovered that a float valve in the trench was not properly adjusted, so that the pump did not come on automatically and stormwater overflowed the trench and escaped into the Elk. Then on Friday, during a heavy rain, runoff overwhelmed the single pump Freedom had set up, causing a second overflow and spill into the river.

Kelley Gillenwater, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said that the trench did not have a “formal design,” but an “evolving design” that relied on the pump to ensure there were no overflows.

“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.”

In its two letters to the DEP on Saturday, Freedom Industries said that it would add a second discharge line from the containment trench so that a second, backup pump could be used to drain the trench when runoff water levels rise.

“The second pump will double the pumping capacity and the amount of water than can be contained during a heavy rainfall event to prevent an overflow or discharge from the lower collection trench area,” Freedom’s Welch said in one of the two letters.

Welch also said that a berm around the trench would be “enhanced” with fill or sandbags to “inhibit the potential for sheet flow stormwater runoff to simply run over the trench.”

Also, Welch said that Freedom would retain employees of one of its contractors, Diversified Services, on site 24 hours per day and seven days per week to “better monitor and operate” the trench and pumps. Welch said that arrangement would continue until either the DEP or the bankruptcy court order it to cease.

But in his letters to the DEP, Welch also challenged the agency’s version of what happened on Thursday and Friday, saying that it’s not clear that the containment trench actually overflowed. Welch said heavy rain on both Thursday and Friday may have caused runoff at the site to simply “flow over” the trench. DEP has said there was heavy rain during Friday’s incident, but an agency inspector who discovered Thursday’s problem said it didn’t start raining until later that evening.

Also, Welch said that Freedom had adjusted the level of the float valve in the containment trench to address what DEP said caused Thursday’s spill. But, Welch said that DEP was well aware of the company’s previous management of the trench and pumps, and that any previous changes were made with DEP’s knowledge. A “confirmation email” regarding the sump pump levels was sent to DEP as late as Wednesday, Welch said.

Gillenwater, the DEP spokeswoman, said that agency officials were still reviewing the Freedom letters and had no immediate comment on them on Saturday.

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

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