CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nearly a week after Freedom Industries last spoke publicly, the company broke its silence Thursday evening, proposing a theory that its "Crude MCHM" chemical leak was caused, in part, by a broken water pipe uphill from its property, according to a source close to the company who demanded anonymity.
The source said water from the broken pipe flowed under the tank farm, then froze during the recent cold temperatures and expanded, puncturing the tank from below.
"It looks like somebody took a sharp object and stuck it through the bottom," the source said.
He said that even though the tanks were surrounded by a concrete retaining wall, they were sitting on gravel, so the chemical leak seeped through the gravel, into the ground and under the wall.State officials have described the retaining wall as shoddy and in need of repair. A representative with the Chemical Safety Board, which is inspecting the site, said Thursday that the tank sits on a concrete pad and the soil that surrounds the pad.
West Virginia American Water replaced a leaking water line along Barlow Drive on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to a water company spokeswoman. Barlow Drive is where Freedom's tank farm is located.
The leak of Crude MCHM, a coal-processing chemical, contaminated the Elk River and the drinking water of 300,000 residents of the Kanawha Valley.
The Freedom source also attributed blame to what he called a very old terra cotta culvert that runs beneath Freedom's property and helped provide an avenue for the water to collect beneath the tank.
"No one is saying that this is absolutely how it happened," he said, "but there are photos of the inside of the tank that clearly show the upward puncture."
The first West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection inspectors who arrived on the scene of the leak last Thursday described seeing a 400-square-foot pool of liquid at the base of the tank. They said a 4-foot wide stream of the liquid was flowing across the bottom of the containment dike and that the flow disappeared right at the point where the dike's wall connected to its floor. They said pressure from the leaking chemical created an "up-swelling," like a fountain of chemical coming up from the pool.
The Freedom Industries source would not say if his theory was consistent with this description.
The source also said Freedom did not have an umbrella insurance policy and that its policy is "inadequate to cover the amount of claims in this case."