Citing “extensive corrosion,” federal investigators said an MCHM chemical storage tank at the Freedom Industries site along the Elk River likely was leaking prior to the Jan. 9 spill that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 people across the region.
U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigators said Wednesday they aren’t sure how long Tank 396 could have been leaking, or if material from it was contained in soil, or if additional chemicals from the tank made their way into the river prior to the day state inspectors discovered a spill while investigating a citizen complaint of a licorice-like odor in the area.
Johnnie Banks, the team leader on the CSB investigation of the Freedom spill, said agency officials are collecting soil samples and performing additional analysis that might help answer those questions.
“If you’re of the mind that Jan. 9 was the first time that material leaked from that tank, stay tuned,” Banks said. He said the CSB hopes to complete its investigation of the Freedom spill by the first anniversary of the incident.
Banks discussed the board’s concern about the extent of time the tank could have been leaking during a public meeting held to release a report on a Hancock County industrial fire that killed three workers and to provide Kanawha Valley residents an update on the Freedom Industries probe.
“An underlying root cause in many of our investigations, including these latest two in West Virginia, is the lack of thorough inspections and hazard reviews, and the need for stricter regulations in areas where we find self-policing is not preventing accidents,” board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said.
The CSB met for three hours Wednesday in a Charleston hotel ballroom. Not far away, crews from a Freedom Industries contractor began demolishing the site’s now-empty chemical storage tank as part of a settlement agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection that closed the facility and requires cleanup of the site.
Among other things, CSB investigators said in Wednesday’s update that they found a hole in a second MCHM storage tank at Freedom and corrosion damage in other tanks, findings that provide more evidence of poor inspection practices and a lack of preventative actions at the site of the January chemical spill.
The CSB’s tank analysis focused on two tanks that contained the MCHM-PPH mixture, Tanks 396 and 397, and on a third tank, numbered 395, that was labeled as having contained glycerine, but according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, actually contained the MCHM-PPH mixture.
CSB officials said that they found “multiple pitting,” a type of corrosion that causes small holes in Tank 396, the tank that caused the Jan. 9 spill, and in “other tanks” containing Freedom’s mixture of Crude MCHM and another chemical called PPH.
A second tank containing the same mixture also had a hole in its floor, similar to the holes the CSB identified in Tank 396, board investigators said in the update made public Wednesday during a CSB meeting in Charleston.
“There was a serious corrosion problem growing in all of the tanks,” Banks said in describing the results of CSB examinations of the three Freedom tanks that were used for the company’s MCHM-PPH mixture.
CSB investigators believe the holes “likely initiated from the interior” of the tanks and that “holes on the roofs likely provided a source for corrosion including water into the tanks,” according to the agency’s early findings.
In its preliminary report, the CSB said it found “a lack of engineering inspections, and uncertain inspection frequency or rigor of inspections” of the more than a dozen chemical storage tanks at the Freedom site, located just 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia American Water’s regional drinking-water intake.
During a congressional hearing in February, the CSB noted that an engineering firm hired by Freedom Industries had examined some of the site’s tanks in October 2013 and found them not in full compliance with industry and federal government standards. That evaluation did not include an examination of Tank 396, the CSB has said, and was not as comprehensive or rigorous as required by accepted industry standards.
“To date, we have not found any records of inspection other than those that were developed during the pending purchase of the site in late 2013,” said CSB spokeswoman Hilary Cohen. “The lack of engineering inspections and indications of frequency and rigor is of interest as we move forward.”
The CSB noted in its report that residents “continue to distrust information that the water is safe to drink,” citing the “lingering odor” that remained after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the water “appropriate” for use and the fact that long-term health effects of the chemicals involved in the spill are not known.
“There is limited toxicological information on MCHM, PPH and their chemical constituents,” said CSB investigator Lucy Tyler.
Tyler noted that public health decisions were being made after the spill based entirely on a small number of studies done by MCHM-maker Eastman Chemical Co.
“They had all animal studies for acute or short-term exposure to MCHM at high concentrations,” Tyler explained. “There is very little information available for low concentrations, the types of exposures from the water over several days or weeks.”
The CSB also said chemical data sheets, produced by Eastman and Freedom “did not provide information on the potential health hazards to assist in a timely notification of water usage restrictions.”
Board member Mark Griffon emphasized that he doesn’t think the CSB’s role is to conduct health studies, but to examine whether the existing chemical-regulatory system is adequate or contains gaps that hampered public health officials and first responders in incidents like the Freedom spill.
CSB officials said their investigation includes examining public health effects of the spill, regulation of above-ground storage tanks, emergency response to the incident and an evaluation of drinking-water intake systems and the siting of chemical storage tanks just upstream from such intakes.
“The obvious question is how this came to be — what was the mechanism of failure for this tank — but on a larger scale, how do you get a situation where you have a chemical plant this close to the intake of a water system that treats water for 300,000 people,” Banks said in a video released by the board Tuesday. “We hope to learn from that and share that information broadly so that other systems can use that information and examine their processes and consider their location and proximity to chemical plants.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.