Information on leak's 2nd chemical 'very limited'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal and state officials scrambled Wednesday for more information following the surprise disclosure Tuesday that an additional chemical was also in the tank that spilled Crude MCHM into the Elk River public drinking water supply two weeks ago.
Freedom Industries disclosed the information to state and federal regulators on Tuesday morning, but health impacts of the chemical remain unclear, and Freedom Industries has claimed the exact identify of the substance is "proprietary."
In an email to state officials Tuesday night and a press statement this morning, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control noted that data about the potential health effects of the chemical "PPH" are -- like the information on Crude MCHM -- "very limited."
CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said Wednesday that information thus far indicates that PPH is probably less toxic than Crude MCHM, and officials have said they believe that West Virginia American Water's treatment system was likely able to remove the PPH from the water.
"Given the small percentage of PPH in the tank and information suggesting similar water solubility as MCHM, it is likely that any amount of PPH currently in the water system would be extremely low," Reynolds said in an emailed statement. "However, the water system has not been tested for this material."
The Gazette learned about the additional chemical from a source, and confirmed that information with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Later, the Tomblin administration made officials from several agencies available to provide additional details.
Mike Dorsey, chief of homeland security and emergency response for the state Department of Environmental Protection, learned about the additional chemical shortly before 10 a.m., at a regular, daily meeting between government officials and Freedom Industries representatives.
Dorsey said that Freedom President Gary Southern told him about the PPH, and that there was about 300 gallons of the material in the tank that leaked. It's not clear how much of it actually escaped the tank or how much made it into the river.
According to information Freedom gave to Dorsey, something that Freedom called "PPH, stripped" was added to the Crude MCHM that Freedom bought from Eastman Chemical and then sold to area companies for use in coal-cleaning facilities.
While some reports have used the term "Crude MCHM" and the chemical "4-methylcyclohexanemethanol" interchangeably, the 4-MCHM is actually only one of seven components of Crude MCHM.
Eastman Chemical's material safety data sheet, or MSDS, says the chemical 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol makes up 68 percent to 89 percent of Crude MCHM. The Eastman MSDS also shows that Crude MCHM includes six other ingredients: 4-(methoxymethyl)cyclohexanemethanol, water, methyl 4-methylcyclohexanecarboxylate, dimethyl 1,4-cyclohexanedicarboxylate, methanol and 1,4-cyclohexanedimethanol.
Dorsey said that Freedom told him that the "PPH, stripped" it was using was a mixture of two other chemicals, DiPPH Glycol Ether, and PPH Glycol Ether. Dow Chemical makes those two chemicals, according to the information Freedom gave to Dorsey.
But Richard Denison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that Freedom Industries withheld the specific chemical identify of the "PPH, stripped." The MSDS provided by the company lists the key "chemical abstract service" identification number as "proprietary."
"All this means yet more questions and more uncertainty for West Virginia residents," Denison wrote on his group's blog. "The number of lessons to be drawn from this West Virginia chemical spill appears to be growing by the day."
Denison wondered if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would exercise its rarely used authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act to compel disclosure of the exact identity of PPH.
Terri White, an EPA spokeswoman, did not respond to requests for comment.
On Wednesday morning, Amy Goodwin, a spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said the DEP's Dorsey did not mention the PPH issue in a legislative briefing Tuesday afternoon because he "was focusing his comments on the remediation work being done at the spill site.
"He received information about the additional chemical and passed that information on to the National Guard and other officials," Goodwin said. "He wanted to be certain of the material/seriousness of the new chemical and didn't want to prematurely release information that might not be correct."
Also Wednesday morning, the DEP released an order that it issued demanding that Freedom Industries disclose, by this afternoon, "any and all information fully describing the composition of the materials spilled into the Elk River on Jan. 9."
In a response, Freedom told the DEP that the tank contained only Crude MCHM mixtued and PPH.
"PPH is added to the Crude MCHM to act as an 'extender' in that the Crude MCHM is available in limited, sporadic quantities," Freedom said in its response. "At the time of the release on Jan. 9, the blend in Tank No. 396, after extensive calculation, was approximately 88.5 percent Crude MCHM, and 7.3 percent PPH by weight and 4.2 percent water by weight. Our records and internal investigations indicate that there were no other materials in Tank 396 at the time of the release."
The Freedom response differed somewhat from what the company told the DEP initially. It said that its PPH "is a hydrophobic glycol ether" that is described in the Dow MSDS for only one of the two products it originally mentioned, DiPPH Glycol Ether.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said, "Having this revelation so late in the game is completely unacceptable. Having to order them to provide such obvious information is indicative of the continued decline of their credibility."
But, state officials have been unable to explain why state sampling of the material in the tank that leaked at Freedom Industries didn't identify the PPH as being present.
Goodwin, the governor's spokeswoman, said, "The National Guard did the sampling at the tank site and we're still waiting to hear back on this issue."
State officials said late Tuesday that, after consulting with West Virginia American Water, they believe the water company's Elk River plant likely would have removed the chemical from drinking water during its normal treatment process. Additional testing of some of the original water samples from the first days after the incident is being conducted to confirm that, officials said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.