Why wasn't there a plan?
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last February, Freedom Industries sent state officials a form telling them the company stored thousands of pounds of a coal-cleaning chemical called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol in the storage tanks at its Etowah River Terminal.
The facility, along the Elk River not far from downtown Charleston, is about 1.5 miles upstream from the intake West Virginia American Water uses to supply drinking water for 300,000 residents across the capital city and the surrounding region.
Freedom Industries filed its "Tier 2" form under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. State emergency response officials got a copy. So did emergency planners and responders from Kanawha County.
Under the law, government officials are supposed to use chemical inventory information on Tier 2 forms, like Freedom Industries', to prepare for potential accidents.
Armed with the forms, they know what facilities could explode, where large quantities of dangerous substances are stockpiled, and what industries could pose threats to things such as drinking water supplies. They can plan how to evacuate residents, fight fires or contain toxic leaks.
On Thursday morning, an unknown amount of the chemical leaked from one of Freedom Industries' tanks into the Elk River. By late afternoon, West Virginia American Water was warning residents across a nine-county region not only not to drink their water, but also not to use it for anything except flushing toilets or fighting fires.
Now, all manner of federal, state and local agencies are rushing to truck in water and otherwise see to residents' needs, following Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's declaration of a "state of emergency" and President Obama's order to provide federal assistance.
Those same agencies and public officials, though, have said they know little about the chemical involved. They're all acting a bit surprised that this mystery substance was being stockpiled so close to a crucial water intake, and shocked that something like this could have happened.
Water company officials are equally puzzled. For example, West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre told reporters on Friday that his company didn't know much about the chemical's possible dangers, wasn't aware of an effective treatment process, and wasn't even sure exactly how much 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol is too much.
"We're still trying to work through the [material safety data sheet] to try to understand the risk assessment of this product," McIntyre said during a Friday-morning news conference. "We don't know that the water is not safe. But I can't say that it is safe."
McIntyre said his company hadn't at that point had any contact directly with Freedom Industries, and he wasn't able to identify any previous efforts by the two firms to work together on emergency response planning.
"I can't answer that question," McIntyre said when asked about such planning. "I don't have that information."
Fred Millar, a longtime chemical industry watchdog in Washington, D.C., said the lack of better planning was an example of how the landmark emergency response law hasn't been properly enforced around the country.
"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," Millar said Friday. "It's just head-in-the-sand to be ignoring this type of threat."
Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act following the deaths of thousands of people in a Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal, India, and a much smaller incident that injured 135 Carbide neighbors in Institute. Since then, local officials in both government and industry in the Kanawha Valley have said that the area has one of the best emergency planning processes in the country.
Asked late last week how much planning county officials had done for a possible leak from Freedom Industries into the region's water supply, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper was blunt.
"Not enough," Carper said. But Carper also pointed the finger at the water company, saying West Virginia American certainly knew Freedom Industries was there and should have prepared for an accident like this one.
As the state of emergency continues, a wide variety of elected officials and government agencies are issuing statements to respond.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for example, sent out a news release to remind employers that they must provide potable water for drinking and hand-washing in the workplace.
OSHA said it started an inspection Friday morning at Freedom Industries to "assess any potential worker safety and health issues related to the incident."
But the release also noted that the operation "does not have OSHA history," meaning -- as confirmed by a review of OSHA data -- that federal workplace safety officials have never inspected the site.
OSHA inspectors started to examine the facility in November 2009 as part of a program of special emphasis looking at accidents that prompted amputations, records show. But they discovered that Freedom Industries was in the wrong industry classification for that program, and they never did the inspection, said OSHA spokeswoman Lenore Uddyback-Fortson.
Terri White, a regional spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said in a prepared statement that the EPA had deployed personnel to assist with water sampling and to offer "additional assistance" to the state. But White refused to make any EPA officials involved in the effort available for an interview.
During a news conference Friday, Tomblin had harsh words for Freedom Industries. "This discharge of pollutants is unacceptable," the governor told reporters.
Since the discovery of the leak on Thursday, state Department of Environmental Protection inspectors have taken three different enforcement actions against Freedom Industries over alleged water and air pollution violations at the Elk River site.
But agency officials concede that their discovery of the leak marked the first time DEP inspectors had been at the site in more than 20 years.
Initially, the DEP reported that it had no permits for the operation, and that Freedom Industries did not require any permits. The DEP said the company did not manufacture any products, that the operation was "chiefly a storage facility" with "no emissions" and that "the materials it stores are not considered hazardous."
Further review by DEP officials identified an industrial stormwater permit held by the company, but agency spokesman Tom Aluise said that the DEP had not inspected the site since 1991, when it was a different sort of facility and was owned by a different company.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.