CHARLES TOWN – In the wake of a major spill of an industrial chemical upstream of the largest public water intake in the state – the single source of drinking water for about one-sixth of the population – area lawmakers are gearing up for investigations and pondering new regulations to prevent a repeat of the event.
[cleeng_content id="292456128" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]The spill left all or part of nine counties without usable tap water for days, bringing about an acute humanitarian crisis for some 300,000 people while closing businesses, schools and government agencies throughout the region.
But, for all of that, Sen. Herb Snyder – an environmental chemist with nearly four decades of experience in water chemistry who stayed in the Capitol after the spill to lend his expertise – says the state “dodged a bullet.”
“The consequences could have been just horrific,” said Snyder, a Democrat.
Little is known about the long-term health effects of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, the coal-washing chemical 7,500 gallons of which leaked Thursday from tanks perched on the banks of the Elk River that are owned by Freedom Industries.
The oily licorice-smelling alcohol is a known irritant and to have a relatively high lethal dose in lab animals. But there have been no studies of its potential to cause cancer or birth defects, or whether long-term low-level exposure can cause organ damage or other health problems.
While the leak triggered hundreds of Poison Control reports and led to the hospitalization of more than 100 people, it is not known to have caused any deaths or critical poisonings. But, Snyder says, there are many chemicals that could have.
“It could have been much, much, much worse, and we are just lucky that it was not,” he said. “We are extremely lucky that this was not a highly toxic chemical. If this had been cyanide or benzene or something that was highly carcinogenic, this could have been an absolute disaster. There would have not been enough hospitals in the region to cover all of this.”
Such a spill, Snyder said, could have left the area’s water table permanently unusable “without a doubt.”
When the news broke that Freedom’s storage tanks, which had formerly held petroleum products but had been repurposed for chemical storage, had not been inspected in more than 20 years – and had not been required to, since it was not a manufacturing plant but only a tank farm used to store chemicals – Delegate Stephen Skinner said he was stunned.
“It’s absurd,” he said. “We need to have regular inspections of these facilities. They pose exactly the same risks as if the chemical were manufactured there. There shouldn’t be a loophole simply because it was a storage facility.”
Sen. John Unger, a Democrat who serves as chairman of the Senate Oversight Committee on Water Resources, says his committee plans to launch an investigation into the incident today.
“I’m pushing on toward an investigation into the situation, and I’m currently drafting legislation that will look at inspection of on-ground facilities that hold liquids of any sort except for water,” he said. “I want to see what happened, how it happened and make sure that we do everything we can to make sure it never happens again in Charleston or anywhere in West Virginia.”
Snyder said regulations requiring such inspections are vital.
“If you are storing chemicals, especially near a public water intake, there ought to be some more rigorous inspection of tanks to make sure that they are not rusting out,” he said. “They were not a manufacturer, and that may be the reason why they were not rigorously inspected. I suspect, but haven’t confirmed, that this was simply a rusty tank.”
Unger said he saw no reason why above-ground storage of liquid chemicals should be treated more easily than underground storage or storage during transportation.
“We regulate tankers filled with liquid that run on highways,” he said. “So, if there is a chemical coming through West Virginia it is registered with OSHA and that has certain requirements and inspections. We regulate underground tanks. So if you are a gas station inspectors come out and make sure your tanks are OK. If you are a chemical company with tanks on the ground, I don’t see why you would be against identifying the chemical that is there and having inspections to make sure that that facility is in good shape.”
Delegate Paul Espinosa, a Republican, said he was open to the possibility of new regulations, though he argued that the state should first investigate whether Freedom violated existing regulations.
“Clearly there are some questions that need to be asked,” he said. “There quite possibly might be the need for new regulations, but first I would certainly want to understand what if any existing regulations were not being followed.”
As an example, Espinosa cited reports that Freedom knew its secondary containment system – a concrete dike meant to prevent spilled or leaked chemicals from escaping into the outside environment – was flawed.
“There were some reports that the secondary containment system that was supposed to be there at the facility was not in a good state of repair,” he said. “I saw some reports that recently the owner had put money in escrow to repair that containment system. I think an important question is whether that is acceptable: to continue operating a chemical storage facility when the secondary containment system is known to have issues that require repair.”
Randy Huffman, cabinet secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection, told reporters at a press conference Monday that his afency is currently compiling a list of all above-ground storage facilities in the state, and is drawing up proposed regulations to prevent future chemical releases.
Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, a Democrat, said the state should work to improve its means of disseminating information to local businesses in disaster situations.
“We need to begin educating businesses about evacuation procedures when there are states of emergencies,” she said. “The hotels, small businesses, restaurants were really having trouble. They didn’t know who to turn to.”
“We have to have a better plan,” she said.
Skinner predicts the Legislature will move to impose stricter regulations on above-ground storage facilities soon.
“I’m confident that the House will take up legislation that tightens up regulation of these chemical storage facilities,” he said. “We should absolutely know what the obvious risks to the water system are. We should know what can occur as a result of an industrial accident or the failure to maintain a secure environment. That we didn’t know that is an incredible flaw that must be remedied.”
Snyder said the state should also look to ensure that its water infrastructure is more robust so that a single spill wouldn’t lead to such widespread contamination. “We’ve all learned some lessons about vulnerability,” he said.
The West Virginia American Water system, which was contaminated by the Elk River spill, provides a case in point, he said.
“We’re looking at 300,000 people, all on one water intake. Most of us didn’t realize that there was that big of a system. Some of these lines, I’m told, are 60 miles long,” he said. “It surprised everyone that the system is that big with no backup water intake.”
Unger said water protection ought to be the highest priority moving forward.
“We need to provide the public the assurance that their water is being protected,” he said. “I don’t know of anything more important than to protect our water resources. No one can go without water for a day.”