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Revised CSB report on Freedom spill makes no new recommendations

Gazette-Mail file photo
Chemical Safety Board Chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland and lead investigator Johnnie Banks, shown at a September 2016 press conference in Charleston.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigators on Thursday issued a revised report that contains new estimates of the size and duration of the January 2014 chemical spill at Freedom Industries, but does not make any changes in the board’s findings about the cause of the spill or add any new recommendations that might help prevent a recurrence in the Kanawha Valley or other communities around the country.

The updated report does make changes throughout the report to correct confusion about the exact materials — Crude MCHM and other chemicals — that were leaked into the Elk River on Jan. 9, 2014. The incident, just 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia American Water Co.’s regional intake, contaminated drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in Charleston and the surrounding area. Homes and businesses were told to avoid drinking, cooking with or bathing in their tap water for up to a week.

But the CSB’s revised document, which is 11 pages longer than the original one made public last September, offers few new insights into what caused the spill itself, whether West Virginia American Water was prepared for or properly responded, or additional analysis of the weaknesses in state or federal regulatory systems meant to protect the nation’s drinking water supplies from contamination.

“In the final analysis, our findings remain unchanged,” board chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland said during a conference call with reporters.

Sutherland said that the key finding of both versions of the board’s report was that the spill occurred because of a lack of preventative maintenance and an inspection plan for the aging chemical storage tanks at the Freedom facility.

The new report does say that the board now believes that 11,000 gallons of chemicals spilled from the Freedom tank into the Elk River — not 10,000 gallons as the previous CSB report said. The new report also says that the tank contents escaped the vessel over a period of six to eight hours, not the 24 hours the board previously reported.

Throughout the new report, the CSB changed what it called the “nomenclature” for the materials that were spilled, clarifying that the Freedom tank contained a mixture of a product that Freedom called Shurflot 944, which was Crude MCHM, but that the spill also contained a chemical called PPH, stripped.

“In order to ensure greater clarity and minimize the likelihood of mischaracterizing the material that leaked into the Elk River, the team has reviewed each reference of the leaked material and made changes where necessary,” according to a new “preface” that outlined some of the changes in the revised report.

Board members actually approved the revised report on March 17, through what the agency calls a “notation vote,” in which board members vote in writing in private, outside of a public board meeting. The board had public meetings in January and again in April. The CSB is an independent government agency that is charged with investigating chemical accidents and recommending ways to improve the safety of the industry.

The board’s original report outlined a wide variety of enforcement lapses, regulatory gaps and planning problems that caused the spill and the water crisis that followed, but offered few concrete recommendations for avoiding a repeat of the disaster. None of the board’s recommendations was aimed at state, federal or local agencies that regulate companies that store dangerous chemicals, or at agencies that regulate utilities citizens rely on to provide them safe water.

During a public meeting in late September, angry Kanawha Valley residents harshly criticized the board’s original report and noted that the agency gave the public little time to review it before a comment portion of that meeting. Board members voted that evening to give the public 48 more hours to comment on the report, and said it would then review those comments and consider an updated document.

The board also received strong criticism from Purdue University engineer Andrew Whelton, who had led an independent team then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointed to examine the water crisis.

A month after the board’s public meeting, Sutherland said that she didn’t expect the board to actually issue any sort of revised report or even an addendum. Then Kanawha Valley resident Philip Price, a former Union Carbide chemist, filed a formal “petition for correction” that under federal law mandated a board response. The board’s updated report contains some changes that were previously reflected in its formal response to Price, which was quietly issued in January.

“We addressed virtually every concern that was raised in the petition and the commentary we received on the night of the public meeting,” said the board’s lead investigator, Johnnie Banks. “In doing that, it triggered a pretty thorough and comprehensive review and comment period internally at the agency, that added more rigor to the end product.”

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

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