Hazmat team examines chemical facility
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal hazardous materials investigators spent Tuesday at Freedom Industries in Charleston, looking at the facility where a chemical leaked earlier this month and contaminated the water supply of 300,000 West Virginians.
"The remediation effort has reached a point where we really can start ramping up the investigation side of things," said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, standing at the entrance to the tank farm on Barlow Drive. Goodwin had said previously that his office would investigate the leak, one of several agencies doing so.
"Going in the tank, reviewing where the breach might have occurred, videotaping the inside of the tank, taking pictures -- that kind of thing," Goodwin said about the investigation his office is conducting.
He said his office is already questioning witnesses and reviewing documents collected from the company.
"We're doing as thorough an investigation as we possibly can," he said.
Investigators from the FBI were going into the tank that leaked the coal-processing chemical known as Crude MCHM or 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol. Company officials later said another chemical, PPH, also was released into the Elk River, about a mile and a half above the intake for West Virginia American Water's treatment plant in Charleston.
Freedom has been ordered by Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky not to alter or modify "any structure, tank, equipment, material or condition of" its facility, with the exception of changes necessary for stopping and cleaning up the chemical leak. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a week after the leak.
On Saturday, state officials announced they would force Freedom Industries to shut down and dismantle the Elk River tank farm. Goodwin said Tuesday that won't be done until the investigation is complete.
The area around Freedom still smelled like licorice -- the odor of the chemical now familiar to many area residents -- on Tuesday.
Also Tuesday, a state Department of Health and Human Resources official said the department had stopped counting how many people were going to hospitals with health complaints that might be related to the contaminated water.
"DHHR has now moved toward the post-crisis review of hospitalizations and is no longer collecting daily reports of hospitalizations," DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler said in a email.
"DHHR epidemiologists, with the assistance of CDC epidemiologists, will conduct a population surveillance which includes the review of patient charts to determine if there is a link between the illness and the chemical leak," Adler said. "All information gathered and released will be with regard to the population. The DHHR has significant experience in performing these surveys as it is part of its public health mission."
State and water company officials have said the water is safe, relying on a standard of 1 part per million for the chemical that they say was stated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC officials have said they should have been clearer that the threshold was not a "bright line" between safe and unsafe, and a CDC advisory for pregnant women not to drink the water remains in effect.
Staff writer David Gutman contributed to this report.
Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1723.