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."