CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- 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.