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Legislators start hearings into chemical spill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It likely took more than 15 hours for the chemical, crude MCHM, to drain out of a storage tank at Freedom Industries before leaking into the Elk River, a water researcher told state lawmakers Friday.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, who directs the West Virginia Water Research Institute, testified before a House-Senate joint committee that's investigating last week's chemical spill that led to a "do not use" water order that affected 300,000 people in nine counties.

Ziemkiewicz estimated the leak's duration based on the reported size of the hole in the tank, and the amount of chemical that spilled out - about 7,500 gallons. Department of Environmental Protection officials haven't said how long the tank was leaking. 

"You could presumably drain that amount of material out of a tank like that over 15 hours," said Ziemkiewicz, who spoke before the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on State Water Resources on Friday. "The indications are it had been leaking for some period of time."

The leaked chemical likely hugged the bank of the Elk River as it flowed 1.6 miles downstream to West Virginia American Water's treatment plan, Ziemkiewicz said.

"Both Freedom Industries and the water intake are on the same side of the river, so you're going to have a tendency for that water to follow the bank for some distance before it disperses," he said.

Ziemkiewicz said the chemical spill could have been avoided, if Freedom Industries had constructed a proper secondary containment system designed to catch chemicals that leak from storage tanks. Freedom's containment system failed, according to DEP officials.

"Apparently, it was leaking from the bottom of the tank," said Ziemkiewicz, whose office is based at West Virginia University. "The long and short of it is: This wouldn't have happened if appropriate secondary containment was installed. Prevention is the best cure."

Brian Stanley, who represents workers who paint chemical storage tanks, said Freedom Industries' containment wall wasn't watertight.

"Secondary containment is your last line of defense," said Stanley, marketing director of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. "It's your insurance that the chemical in that tank is noting going to get into the environment - the soil, the groundwater, the surface water."

Stanley said the state should start regular inspections of chemical storage facilities.

"I'm sure there are more instances across the state caused by corrosion that we don't know about," he said. "More inspections and mitigation of corrosion is what West Virginia needs. It's what the industry needs."

Sen. John Unger, who co-chairs the water oversight commission, said the panel plans to recommend legislation and policies designed to prevent chemical storage spills.  Earlier this week, Unger introduced a bill to regulate above-ground storage tanks. Companies would have to obtain state permits to operate such tanks, and face inspections.

"The purpose of this [investigation] is to thoroughly examine the situation and look at reasonable approaches to address this so we can ensure the citizens and businesses that that their water resources are protected," said Unger, D-Berkeley.

Asked how long the committee would investigate the Elk River chemical spill, he said, "It could go the whole session - until we get answers."

Added Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor: "As long as it takes." Manypenny is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit over the contaminated water.

Republican Sen. Chris Walters, the only legislator from Kanawha County who sits on the oversight committee, did not attend Friday's meeting. Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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