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MCHM leak inquiry will take about a year

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The federal Chemical Safety Board has not discovered any holes in Freedom Industries' secondary containment wall, but the agency's investigation probably will last a year, and it's too early to know if the wall failed, CSB officials said Friday.

A CSB investigative team has been at Freedom Industries, the site of the chemical leak that contaminated the region's drinking water, since Jan. 13, but investigations of this type generally take about a year, CSB lead investigator Johnnie Banks told a special joint legislative committee on water resources.

Banks said that the secondary containment wall, which surrounds the leaky tank, had no defects "that we can observe with the naked eye."

He said that if investigators discover anything that requires an immediate recommendation, they will issue one.

"There's a sense of urgency in our mission, as well," he said. "We realize that the citizens of this area want to know what happened."

Several of the seven lawmakers at the committee hearing were looking for recommendations they could act on within the ongoing 60-day legislative session.

After the hearing, Rafael Moure-Eraso, the chairman of the CSB, said that seems unlikely.

"We are interviewing people, we are collecting evidence, our tank expert has come to see the place and basically say, 'This is what I'm going to need.' We are getting started," Moure-Eraso said. "We will be able to talk more in six months, perhaps."

This is the third time in recent years that the CSB has been in the Kanawha Valley to investigate an incident.

Investigators were here in 2008 after an explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute killed two workers and they were here in 2010 to investigate a series of leaks at the DuPont plant in Belle that killed one worker.

The final Bayer report was not issued until Jan. 2011, two and a half years after the explosion. The final DuPont report was issued in July 2007, a year and a half after the leaks.

In both those reports, the CSB recommended that West Virginia establish a program to prevent hazardous chemical releases. State officials did not heed either recommendation.

Moure-Eraso said that that is the nature of his agency.

"We contact them and say, 'This is what we recommend' and we write letters to them and say, 'What are your actions about this,'" Moure-Eraso said. "The power that we have is to say 'It's acceptable' or 'It's unacceptable.'

"We go to people like your newspaper and say, 'Look, we make these recommendations, which are public recommendations, and they have to be acted on.'"

Delegate Mike Manypenny asked if the CSB's three visits to the region in five years meant that there was a "systemic problem" with chemical maintenance in the Kanawha Valley, and in West Virginia as a whole.

"That is a fair statement," Banks said, although he added that West Virginia is not alone in having problems with chemical safety.

"We look at how things drift to a state of being, over time, and then there's a catastrophic failure, and the question is, how could that happen?" Banks said. "It evolves over time."

Moure-Eraso also said it was the chemical manufacturer's obligation to provide information on the chemicals that leaked into the Elk River and that the information that has been provided has been scant and inadequate.

The two leaked chemical compounds -- Crude MCHM and PPH, stripped -- are made by Eastman and Dow chemicals, respectively.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said the area's water is safe for everyone except pregnant women, with less than 1 part per million of Crude MCHM.

Moure-Eraso did not counter that standard, but he did say of Crude MCHM and PPH, stripped, "They shouldn't be in drinking water. Period. At any level."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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