In a highly unusual move, members of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board on Wednesday night agreed to re-examine parts of the agency’s report on the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill to address concerns raised by Kanawha Valley residents about the findings and recommendations in that report.
Board chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland suggested the move as part of a motion — approved unanimously by the board’s four members — to accept the CSB investigation team’s 125-page report of its review of the Freedom Industries chemical spill and the regional drinking water crisis that followed.
At the end of a more than three-hour public meeting in downtown Charleston, Sutherland said that the board would continue to accept written public comments through Oct. 1 and then put staff to work on a “supplement” or “addendum” to address “the issues raised tonight.”
More than 60 people turned out for the CSB’s public meeting, held less than eight hours after the board had given the public the first look at the report on its more than two-year investigation of the spill and water crisis.
Residents complained that the CSB didn’t provide clear answers about how much of the various chemicals — Crude MCHM, PPH and others — leaked from a tank where Freedom stored a coal-industry cleaning chemical it marketed as “Shurflot 944,” and also objected to what they said was a lack of any real information about the long-term health effects of the spill.
“We are the test subjects,” said Paul Dalzell, a resident who works with the group Advocates for a Safe Water System. “We’ll know in 20 years what the long-term effects are.”
Other residents told personal stories about how they still don’t trust the West Virginia American Water supply so long after the incident, and how they and their families continue to buy bottled water instead.
“I’m afraid of that water,” said Sue Davis, an Institute resident and activist who has campaigned for safety at the local Bayer CropScience plant for years. “I’ve never had anything that’s happened in this chemical valley affect me the way that this has affected me.”
Another Institute resident, Donna Willis, said that it remains impossible for her to believe what local companies and public officials say about the chemical industry.
“In the state of West Virginia, there is no truth,” Willis said. “What you hear from the chemical companies is all about saving their rear-ends.”
Two retired Union Carbide chemists, who have become part-time activists following the Freedom incident, also questioned whether the CSB had really explained how the company’s tank corroded and fully connected all of the dots about how the spill turned into a regional water crisis.
“As a chemist, I’m confused about what you feel the material was that burned a hole in that tank,” said one of those chemists, Phil Price.
And it wasn’t just local citizens and activists who expressed concerns about the CSB’s report. Among the most telling comments came from West Virginia American Water. The company’s spokeswoman, Laura Martin, did not speak at the public meeting, but earlier in the day issued a statement that objected to the CSB having issued a recommendation about protecting drinking water supplies only to West Virginia American’s parent company, not to the entire drinking water industry through a recommendation to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“We understand that American Water’s other state utilities have implemented or are in the process of implementing similar steps, aligned with the CSB recommendations, at their surface water treatment plants,” Martin said. “However, we believe the CSB’s recommendation to extend these activities to all American Water state utilities would be more effective if made to the U.S. EPA so that any new activities can be implemented in a balanced fashion across the industry instead of only at a very small percentage of the nation’s surface water treatment plants.”
Chemical safety activist Maya Nye had noted that residents had little time to dig into the board’s findings and make comments on the report, and that the CSB had already announced it expected to vote on approval of the document and its recommendations immediately after hearing public comments.
“It kind of makes it seem like the public comment doesn’t count,” Nye said.
Sutherland insisted that the board appreciated the public comments, and would attempt to address them.