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Freedom call to DEP: “Dike is containing the material”

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When a Freedom Industries employee called the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to report the chemical leak that would contaminate the region's drinking water, he said the leaky tank's containment dike was working and he did not think any chemical would enter the river.

Bob Reynolds, the Freedom employee who called the DEP at 12:05 p.m. on Jan. 9, did not even mention the river until about five minutes into the six-and-a-half minute call, and then only when he was directly asked about it.

When Reynolds was asked by the DEP operator if the chemical was going into a creek or stream, he said, "Ah, don't know at this time. It's located right on the Elk River and right now the dike is containing the material, so we don't anticipate it going into the river."

The state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management posted a recording of the call on its website Friday afternoon.

When the call was made, DEP inspectors were already on the site. They had arrived at the scene after nearby residents complained of a strong black-licorice odor, now known to be caused by the leaked chemical, Crude MCHM.

The DEP inspectors and emergency officials arrived at Freedom at about 11 a.m., about an hour before the company officially reported the leak. The DEP had been getting complaints about the odor as early as 8:15 that morning. Freedom's storm-water permit required the company to immediately report any spills. DEP officials have said Freedom called the spill line only after they were told to by inspectors on the site.

The first DEP inspectors on the scene described seeing a 4-foot-wide stream of chemical flowing across the bottom of the containment dike and disappearing at the joint where the dike's wall met the floor.

The inspectors also initially did not realize the chemical was entering the river.

When Reynolds was asked by the DEP operator what time the leak occurred he said, "I heard it about 15 minutes ago, so it was shortly before that."

"Ok, so that would be probably 11:40?" the operator asked.

"Probably somewhere in that neighborhood, yes," Reynolds said. "I don't have the details right now.

"All I can tell you is that they discovered a hole in the tank and there's material leaking out of the tank," Reynolds said. "We've pumped as much out of the tank as we can so far, we've got a full response crew coming in to clean up some material in the dike."

Reynolds' position at Freedom could not be determined Saturday. He is not listed as an executive on the company website. Calls to Reynolds, Freedom and Freedom's lawyer were not returned Saturday.

The DEP operator asked what the leaking material was.

"MCHM," Reynolds replied.

"MCHM?" the operator said.

"You probably want a real name for it," Reynolds said.

"Probably, yeah," the operator said.

"It's, ah, crude, ah, crude methylcyclohexanemethanol," Reynolds said.

"Uh, say again, I'm sorry," the operator said.

Both Reynolds and the operator laughed.

"I know, just bear with me a second please," Reynolds said. "Chemically, it is a mixture of a lot of things, principally it's 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, all one word."

"Do you have any idea how much has been released?" the operator asked.

"Not at this time, no," Reynolds said.

"Is the material hazardous or toxic?"

"No," Reynolds said.

"No?" the operator asked a second time.

"No," Reynolds said.

Crude MCHM is not classified as hazardous by the U.S. Department of Transportation, meaning its shipment is not regulated.

However, it is classified as hazardous by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to the data sheet provided by Eastman Chemical, which makes Crude MCHM.

The data sheet also gives the chemical a "2" health-hazard rating, on a scale of 0 to 4, meaning "temporary or minor injury may occur."

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


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