Three months before the Elk River spill occurred, an inspection of Freedom Industries’ storage site showed that conditions were “not necessarily in full compliance with industry and federal government standards.” Now, after 300,000 West Virginians were left without clean tap water, experts and residents alike are taking a harder look at the conditions of the site and why current regulations were not enough to prevent a disastrous spill.
At a congressional field hearing about the spill, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) brought up a number of issues at the site. CSB is an agency that makes recommendations about safety measures to industry and other agencies. They are currently investigating Freedom Industries to see what happened. In a prepared testimony, CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso cited an October 2013 review of the site. The inspection, conducted by Tank Engineering and Management Consultants, noted that MCHM was not listed as “hazardous” with regards to the Environmental Protection Agency’s spill prevention and counter measures rule. Moure-Eraso says that as a result, the tank that leaked MCHM into the Elk River was never inspected.
CSB investigators found that the “secondary containment wall” to be inadequate at prevent spill-overs. The wall, which was composed of some cinder bricks surrounding the tank “provided very little protection from a possible release.” “Company documents further show that the wall was not lined and that tank 396 rested directly on porous material including gravel and soil,” Moure-Eraso said.
The chemical spill occurred on January 9th, when one of the tanks at Freedom Industries leaked some 7,500 gallons of MCHM into the Elk River. Later on, it was discovered the Freedom also failed to disclose the presence of a second chemical. When a state of emergency was declared, businesses and residents across nine counties were told to not use the water for anything except flushing toilets. MCHM can cause vomiting, diarrhea and skin and eye irritation. Not much is known about its long-term health effects.
Because of the spill, a number of residents and businesses are seeking legal action. Parker Waichman LLP, a national personal injury law firm, has filed two class action lawsuits on behalf of businesses and residents who were affected by the spill.
The October 2013 review also found a potential issue with settling of the tanks that could lead to instability, said Johnnie Banks, CSB’s lead investigator on the Freedom probe. After Monday’s committee hear, Banks stated that “There was some concern about the condition of the tanks,” Tanks that were inspected were “not necessarily in full compliance” with EPA standards or API-653, an American Petroleum Institute Standard. API-653, according to Moure-Eraso, “is considered the prevailing voluntary good practice” for facilities that store above-ground tanks.
Moure-Eraso also says that more measures should be taken for “inherent safety”. The location of the site, he says, should not have been near a local water supply. “And although relocating it would have had some costs, those pale beside the costs that thousands of West Virginia residents and businesses are now paying for this disaster.” He said.