Lack of oversight questioned in West Virginia chemical spill

Reports question why state and company officials were so slow to respond to the leak

Published January 13, 2014 2:23PM (EST)

Five days after a chemical leak from a nearby coal processing plant left hundreds of thousands people in West Virginia without access to tap water, questions are emerging about officials' handling of the incident -- including their lack of preparedness. Their response, the AP reports, could call into question the way such chemicals are regulated throughout the country:

Freedom Industries' tanks don't fall under an inspection program and the chemicals stored at the facility weren't considered hazardous enough to require environmental permitting. Essentially, Freedom Industries wasn't under state oversight at all, said Michael Dorsey, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Homeland Security and Emergency Response office.

A leak in one of the company's 40,000 tanks containing the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is what caused the disruption in water service.

"In my world — I'm a hazmat guy — this stuff's below my radar screen until this happens," said Dorsey. "The tanks themselves, we don't have the regulatory authority to inspect those tanks."

There's already talk about changing that, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman said.

"We are working on some ideas right now," Huffman said. "I think a lot of folks will be calling for legislation and rightly so."

And there are signs that Freedom Industries did not respond appropriately. A state law requires immediate reporting, but Huffman said state environmental workers were on the spill site at 11:15 a.m. Thursday because of a call from the water company — not Freedom Industries.

State officials started investigating when people complained about an odor coming from near the company's river terminal.

Freedom officials were also at the spill site when state officials arrived, yet they still did not actually report the spill until nearly an hour later.

"There's no question that they should have called earlier," Huffman said.

The Charleston Gazette, meanwhile, finds it suspicious that state officials are responding with such shock and professed ignorance to the spill. Ken Ward Jr. reports that Freedom Industries had filed a report last year alerting the state to the hazardous chemical's presence. It did so under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, a law enacted to ensure emergency planning measures are in place for hazardous chemical leaks, including the rapid notification of the public and first responders.

"Obviously, the whole idea of the chemical inventory reports is to properly inform local emergency officials about the sorts of materials they might have to deal with," Fred Millar, "a longtime chemical industry watchdog," told the Gazette. "It's just head-in-the-sand to be ignoring this type of threat."

Inspectors at the state's Department of Environmental Protection acknowledged that, prior to the leak, it had been 20 years since they'd visited the site where the chemicals were stored, according to the Gazette. Lawmakers began to look into the issue Friday, the AP reports, but were forced to cut the session short due to the lack of water.

The more immediate concern Monday is dealing with the 300,000 people who haven't been able to shower for the better part of a week. Levels of the chemical have tested below the toxic threshold, and West Virginia American Water president Jeff McIntyre said Sunday that the all-clear should arrive soon. "We see light at the end of the tunnel," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Chemical Spill Water Safety West Virginia