State: Replace West Virginia contractor that spilled twice

CHARLESTON (AP) — The company responsible for contaminating the state’s biggest drinking water supply with chemicals in January should replace the contractor overseeing cleanup operations following two additional spills last week, West Virginia’s top environmental official said Tuesday.

State Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman noted that stormwater from a Freedom Industries trench poured into the Elk River on Thursday and Friday last week while Civil & Environmental Consultants was in charge of the Charleston site cleanup.

Tests at the water treatment plant showed no chemical traces either day, but during the Thursday spill, employees and contract workers all had left the Freedom site, and the gate was left unlocked, Huffman said.

Huffman said it’s especially critical to change the contractor before Freedom starts tearing down its tanks and removing contamination from its grounds, per state orders. He said that process is expected to start June 25. A different contractor is taking care of the tanks.

“We’ve lost confidence in (Civil & Environmental Consultants),” Huffman told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “The public’s lost confidence in them. So, I think we’re trying to move for a change in contractors.”

Huffman said he can urge, but not force, Freedom to replace the contractor.

Freedom Chief Restructuring Officer Mark Welch didn’t say if he would make the change.

“Freedom is considering all options to ensure that the project is adequately covered and completed,” Welch said in an email Tuesday.

A Civil & Environmental Consultants representative reached by phone Tuesday evening said no one was available to comment.

Regulators said Thursday’s spill sent a small amount of water into the river. A 50-minute overflow occurred Friday during a thunderstorm.

Initial violations include allowing a discharge from an unpermitted outlet and not implementing an approved sump management plan, per state orders.

After last week’s spills, Freedom told state regulators it would keep contractors at its Charleston site 24 hours a day. The company also pledged to double its capacity to pump the collection trench, which is meant to keep chemical-laden water from reaching the river.

Huffman requested that Freedom build more accountability into a possible new contract. He also suggested selecting a locally based company.

“It increases accountability because someone who lives and works in this area that’s been affected by it has to continue to live and work here after that project’s done,” Huffman said.

Huffman says it could take a few weeks to change the contractor. Freedom needs bankruptcy-court approval for most actions.

“If (Welch) says no, I’m not going to go away,” Huffman said.

Two weeks ago, a bankruptcy judge also flagged Civil & Environmental Consultants for exceeding its budget for Freedom work. The judge temporarily denied $205,000 of $315,500 in payments the company was seeking.

The January chemical spill forced 300,000 people to refrain from using tap water for most uses for up to 10 days.

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