CHARLESTON — When state inspectors arrived at the Freedom Industries tank farm late last Thursday morning, they found a 400-square-foot pool of clear liquid had collected outside a white tank marked as number 396.
A 4-foot wide stream of the liquid — thicker than water, but not as heavy as syrup — was flowing across the bottom of a containment dike. The flow disappeared right at the joint where the dike’s wall connected to its floor.
Freedom Industries had set up one cinder block and used one 50-pound bag of some sort of safety absorbent powder to try to block the chemical flow, state Department of Environmental Protection inspectors say.
“This was a Band-Aid approach,” said DEP air quality inspector Mike Kolb. “It was apparent that this was not an event that had just happened.”
In an interview Monday with The Charleston Gazette, Kolb and DEP air quality engineer Dan Bauerle described discovering the leak of “Crude MCHM” that fouled the drinking water supply that serves hundreds of thousands of West Virginians.
Kolb and Bauerle provided new details of what they found at the site, and also revealed that the facility had been the subject of at least one odor complaint “several years ago” that DEP officials determined at the time was unfounded.
In public briefings so far, DEP officials have explained that the Elk River leak last week was identified only after they received odor complaints from area residents at about 8:15 a.m. Thursday.
When those complaints — and notice of the odor from two different DEP employees — came in to the agency’s Kanawha City headquarters, Kolb and Bauerle were dispatched to investigate. They discovered odors that rated as “objectionable” under state standards at spots where Bigley Avenue intersects Westmoreland Drive and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Based on the smell, the pair say, they suspected something had happened at Freedom Industries.
While DEP has said it hasn’t inspected the site since 1991, when it was owned by Pennzoil, Kolb and Bauerle said Monday that the agency had looked into a previous odor complaint at the site and another odor complaint in St. Albans related to a company called Diversified Services, which handles shipping of materials for Freedom Industries.
Kolb and Bauerle arrived at the operation shortly after 11 a.m. In the parking lot, they met Kanawha County fire coordinator C.W. Sigman, whose office was also looking into residents’ odor complaints.
The DEP officials went to the office, where Dennis P. Farrell, who identified himself as president of the company, greeted them. They told Farrell about the odors and asked if the facility was having any problems.
“He said as far as he knew this was a busy time of year. They were just handling a lot of trailers,” Kolb said. “As far as he knew, there weren’t any problems.”
The DEP officials asked Kolb to show them around the facility. When they went outside, an employee asked to speak to Farrell. After that conversation, Farrell told the DEP officials there was a problem, and led them to tank 396.
There, the DEP officials said, they found a 400-square-foot pool of chemical that had leaked from the tank into a block containment area. Pressure from the material leaking out of the tank created what DEP officials called an “up-swelling,” or an artesian well, like a fountain of chemical coming up from the pool.
They saw a 4-foot-wide stream of chemicals heading for the containment area’s wall, and disappearing into the joint between the dike’s wall and floor.
Initially, no one saw the chemical pouring into the Elk River. DEP officials say that part of the river still had a layer of ice on top, which made the spill difficult to notice.
Once the DEP officials saw the leak though, they called their superiors and got DEP’s emergency response, water pollution and hazardous materials crews headed to the site.
In one enforcement order, DEP officials allege that the company had taken “no spill containment measures” prior to agency staffers arriving at the site and discovering the leak.
“The facility did not give any real attention to containment,” Bauerle said.
State and county officials have described the Freedom facility’s spill containment dike as full of cracks and holes.
“It’s a very old dike,” Sigman said. “If it had been my home’s foundation, I would be concerned.”
DEP emergency response director Mike Dorsey has said he learned the company at some point had put $1 million into an escrow account for repairs. It’s not clear when that account was created or what — if any — timeline Freedom officials had for the fixes.
But questions continue about how Freedom’s problems received no attention from regulators prior to the leak.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has said that the facility fell through the cracks. It made no chemicals on site, Huffman said, and was not regularly inspected because it only stored and shipped products.
But DEP officials have given the facility a storm water plan, under a “general permit” program that is less rigorous than obtaining a site-specific pollution permit.
Under the permit, the company was required to have a spill prevention plan and to immediately report potentially dangerous spills to the state. DEP had authority to inspect the site to ensure compliance with the period.
DEP officials, though, say that Freedom Industries didn’t report the leak to them until 12:05 p.m. Thursday, and even then did so only because DEP officials told them they had to do so.
“Freedom Industries was explicitly required to report the spill immediately to DEP,” said Jennifer Chavez, a lawyer with the group Earthjustice. “The company’s failure to do so was a violation of its storm water permit.”
At the federal government’s National Response Center, which takes reports of hazardous material spills around the country, a report is on file about the incident. But officials there say it didn’t come from Freedom Industries or from West Virginia American Water. Instead, National Response Center staff typed up the report based on local media reports pulled from the Internet.
On Monday, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin issued a second statement, repeating his promise of a criminal investigation, and said the probe would include issues about the company’s compliance with chemical accident reporting laws.
“As the immediate water crisis begins to ease and West Virginians regain access to drinkable water, I want to make three things clear,” Goodwin said.
“One, my office will continue working as quickly as possible to find out exactly what happened here, including the complete timeline of the release and what was done — or not done — before and after it,” he said. “Two, if our investigation reveals that federal criminal laws were violated, we will move rapidly to hold the wrongdoers accountable. And three, companies whose facilities could affect the public water supply should be on notice: If you break federal environmental laws, you will be prosecuted. Our drinking water is not something you can take chances with, and this mess can never be allowed to happen again.”
Reprinted with permission from The Charleston Gazette