CSB: Communication, Maintenance Deficiencies Contributed to Severity of W.Va. Chemical Spill
A U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) report (PDF) published in September concludes that Freedom Industries failed to inspect and repair corroding tanks at its chemical storage and distribution facility in Charleston, W.Va., which released chemicals into the Elk River, Charleston’s public water supply, in 2014. CSB’s investigation also found that the company was unable to immediately provide information regarding the chemicals’ characteristics, which delayed communication of the risks of drinking water contamination to the approximately 300,000 people affected.
The Jan. 9, 2014, spill released approximately 10,000 gallons of chemicals. The primary component of the spill was crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), a liquid used to wash coal. Other chemicals present in smaller amounts included dipropylene glycol phenyl ether (DiPPH) and propylene glycol phenyl ether (PPH). Freedom initially reported that only 1,000 gallons of crude MCHM had been released, and the presence of PPH in the chemicals spilled was not made public until 13 days following the leak.
CSB notes that no comprehensive aboveground storage tank law existed in West Virginia at the time of the chemical release. However, Freedom Industries failed to maintain adequate pollution controls and secondary containment as required by regulations covering industrial facilities. CSB’s technical analysis found that the facility’s MCHM tanks had not been internally inspected for at least 10 years before the incident.
“Since the incident there have been a number of reforms, including passage of the state’s Aboveground Storage Tank Act,” CSB’s press release reads. “Among other requirements, the new regulations would have required the tanks at Freedom to be surrounded by an adequate secondary containment structure, and require proper maintenance and corrosion prevention, including internal inspections and a certification process.”
CSB’s report outlines recommendations to supplement these new regulations, calling on public officials and water companies to identify potential risks related to safe drinking water. According to the agency, nationwide water providers have likely not developed programs to determine the location of potential chemical contamination sources, and have likely not developed plans to respond to incidents like the 2014 Elk River spill.
CSB urges aboveground storage tank owners to establish regular inspection and monitoring, and to provide nearby water utilities and emergency response organizations with adequate information about stored chemicals for planning in case of a leak. In addition, the agency encourages water utilities to assess the capabilities of water treatment systems to contain potential leaks for all potential sources of significant contamination, and ensure that laboratory testing methods are available to detect the presence or measure the concentration of potential contaminants.
To learn about CDC’s drinking water screening levels during the Elk River chemical spill, see "By the Numbers" in the September 2016 Synergist.