No plans in place for air monitoring during Freedom cleanup

State and federal environmental agencies have no plans in place to monitor air quality for emissions of the toxic chemical MCHM as work tearing down chemical storage tanks is set to begin next week at the Freedom Industries operation along the Elk River, officials confirmed Thursday.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has “no way to implement any type of monitoring” for MCHM in the air while the tank farm is being torn down, DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said.

Gillenwater said no “screening value” for safe inhalation levels of MCHM has been developed and no one has come up with any “sampling and testing methodology.”

Additionally, the DEP is still waiting for Freedom to submit a plan for controlling stormwater runoff during the tank demolition. That plan must be submitted to the DEP at least 48 hours before any of the tank demolition begins, said Scott Mandirola, director of the DEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management.

That plan is supposed to spell out, for example, how Freedom’s contractors plan to control any potential runoff of contaminated materials from soil that is uncovered when the tanks are removed. As of Thursday evening, the company had not submitted the plan, Mandirola said.

At least five months ago, DEP officials warned the public that, as cleanup activities increase at the site, the now-familiar licorice-like odor of Crude MCHM could return because contaminated soil would be disturbed. MCHM’s odor can be picked up by the human nose at extremely low concentrations that officials say are well below any dangerous dose.

Still, because of public concern, DEP officials said in February, and again in May, that they were working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on monitoring methods and an air quality screening level for MCHM.

The EPA has not completed that work, and the DEP hasn’t come up with monitoring methods or a screening level on its own.

This week, EPA officials would not make any agency staffers who are working on the MCHM monitoring project available for interviews. Instead, EPA regional spokeswoman Terri White provided a prepared statement that said federal officials are “close to completing” their work on an MCHM screening value and sampling procedures.

“The inhalation screening level will provide a value at which short-term exposure to MCHM in air is expected to pose no adverse health effects,” the prepared statement said. “Once we’ve completed this work, we will provide to the WVDEP, who requested this support in responding to the Elk River spill.

“It is WVDEP’s decision as to how they plan to use the screening level and air sampling methodology,” the EPA statement said.

In the hours after the Jan. 9 leak, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rushed to set a 1-part-per-million public health “screening level” for MCHM. However, agency officials considered only exposure through drinking contaminated water — not other exposure routes, such as inhalation or skin contact — and the CDC’s figure continues to be strongly criticized by outside public-health experts.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and state public-health officials, along with West Virginia American Water, advised residents they could resume using water that met the CDC’s drinking-water standard, despite increasing evidence after the leak of adverse reactions from skin contact or breathing MCHM fumes.

On its official chemical-safety data sheets, MCHM maker Eastman Chemical warned that vapors from MCHM “may cause irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract” and that the chemical “causes skin and eye irritation.” While that information was available to the CDC and other public-health officials the day of the leak, the screening level used by government officials and the water company assumed that residents would be exposed only through drinking the water, not also through skin contact and inhalation of fumes.

The Tomblin administration’s independent West Virginia Testing Assessment Project said risks from inhalation and skin exposure should have been considered by the CDC. WVTAP tried to account for those risks and, in doing so, came up with a screening level of 120 parts per billion, about eight times more stringent than the CDC figure.

On Thursday, Gillenwater said the DEP still believes there is the potential for the MCHM smell to resurface during the Freedom tank demolition but that agency officials “do not anticipate the odor to be as bad or at least any worse than the day of the spill and immediately following the leak.” DEP staffers who have been on duty at the Freedom site — including shifts of up to 12 hours each from Jan. 9 through most of February — have not reported “any ill health effects,” Gillenwater said in an email.

Gillenwater said that “if issues related to the MCHM odor arise” during the cleanup, the DEP “will evaluate appropriate precautionary measures at that time.”

DEP air quality officials said the potential for air releases of any MCHM residue from tanks and associated piping should be minimized by tank cleaning already being done at Freedom. If workers hit a pocket of MCHM during the tank demolition, exactly what action is taken will depend on specific circumstances involved, DEP officials said.

“It’s going to be a situation where we have to deal with it if it happens,” said Jesse Adkins, an assistant director at the DEP’s Division of Air Quality. “We’re going to have guys on site. We’re hopeful that there won’t be any odors.”

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

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