Freedom eyes DEP’s voluntary cleanup program

Freedom Industries is considering trying to enter West Virginia’s voluntary industrial site remediation program to help ease the cleanup of its Elk River facility, where a chemical leak in January contaminated the drinking-water supply for hundreds of thousands of people in Charleston and the surrounding region.

Representatives from Freedom met last week with state Department of Environmental Protection officials to discuss whether the company’s Etowah Terminal is eligible for the DEP’s Voluntary Remediation Program, a move that could result in Freedom having to meet less-stringent contamination standards than under existing DEP enforcement orders.

No decisions were made, and Freedom has not yet submitted a formal application for the program, officials from the company and the DEP said.

Freedom’s eligibility for the program could be tricky, though, because of the company’s ongoing bankruptcy proceedings and because there are no existing cleanup standards for Crude MCHM, the main chemical involved in the Jan. 9 leak into the Elk.

DEP officials emphasized that discussions about Freedom applying for voluntary remediation status were preliminary and that the program would not change agency Secretary Randy Huffman’s promise that the Freedom site will be remediated “until there is a 100-percent certainty that the risk of this stuff getting back in the water has been eliminated, not just minimized.”

“They will still have to show that they are not going to have chemicals going into the Elk River,” said Patty Hickman, interim director of the DEP’s Division of Land Restoration, which runs the voluntary industrial site cleanup program.

Mark Welch, Freedom’s chief restructuring officer, said the company is still considering options but that the voluntary program could benefit Freedom because the company and the DEP “would agree to enter into the plan and agree to the standards,” rather than having cleanup details mandated by the state.

On Thursday, Freedom received approval from the Charleston Sanitary Board to send potentially contaminated stormwater gathered at the Elk River site in recent months to Charleston’s sewage facility, where it would be treated and discharged into the Kanawha River. Freedom has said the board’s operation can properly treat the runoff and save the company significant money over sending the stormwater to out-of-state treatment and disposal sites.

Last week, Freedom moved temporary chemical storage tanks onto the site for stormwater that’s collected in the future, so that the remaining four tanks can be dismantled. Work tearing down those tanks is scheduled to begin around Sept. 22, Welch said.

So far, DEP officials haven’t seen any results of soil samples from the Freedom site and are still waiting for the company to submit an updated remediation plan for the facility.

Scott Mandirola, director of the DEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management, said this week that he is frustrated that Freedom hasn’t provided that information yet so that removal of any contaminated soils can begin.

“Obviously, my main concern is when are we going to start,” Mandirola said. “I’m getting a little antsy about why we’re not moving dirt.”

In late January, Freedom Industries signed a consent order with the DEP, agreeing to get rid of the Elk River site’s storage tanks and submit more detailed cleanup plans to the agency. In April, Freedom submitted an initial remediation plan, saying that additional testing — to be done after most of the storage tanks were removed from the site — was needed in order to sort out what type of cleanup activities were necessary.

“Despite these variables, it is important to note that the remedial options ultimately selected will be designed to achieve the overall objective of remediating the site to eliminate current and future threats to human health and the environment related to the MCHM release,” the initial remediation plan stated.

The DEP created the voluntary remediation program in 1997, and the effort is aimed at “encouraging the voluntary cleanup of contaminated sites and redevelopment of abandoned and under-utilized properties,” according to an agency handbook.

“Properties in the state are not being productively used because of contamination or the perception of contamination,” the DEP handbook states. “Because many of these properties are located in areas with existing industrial infrastructure, redevelopment of these sites can be less costly to society than developing pristine sites.”

Hickman said, under the existing enforcement orders, Freedom likely would have to clean up the Elk River site to the point where no MCHM can be detected in soil left at the location. Under the voluntary program, the cleanup standard would be a “risk-based” one, which would depend on what sort of potential for human exposure exists based on the planned future use of the land, Hickman said.

“If you’re going to have someone living there 24-7, or put a school or a day-care center there, the standard is going to be different than if it’s another industrial facility,” Hickman said.

She said one issue is that Freedom — which is going through a bankruptcy liquidation — would have to show it has the financial capability to carry out the cleanup to quality for the DEP’s voluntary program. Some of the so-called “brownfields” projects can get public funding, Hickman noted. However, because Freedom was responsible for the leak, it isn’t eligible for such funding. Typically, public entities such as cities, counties or nonprofit organizations are those that receive public cleanup assistance, she said.

Hickman said another problem is that, given the lack of scientific studies of MCHM, so little is known about the coal-cleaning chemical’s human health effects that there is no existing soil-cleanup standard the DEP could require. In addition, while Mandirola said that DEP could calculate the detection level for how much MCHM could be measured in soils, the agency has not formally done that work yet.

Hickman said the DEP will pay careful attention to any voluntary-program application from Freedom because of the facility’s proximity to the region’s drinking-water intake. “Whenever we enroll a site, they cannot be allowing material to enter surface water,” Hickman said.

“We, obviously, don’t want to get into a situation where Freedom doesn’t have the money to do it, because then it becomes the responsibility of the taxpayers,” Mandirola said. “But we certainly are not putting cost considerations above the end goal.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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