Three months before leak, review questioned Freedom tanks
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An evaluation three months before the Jan. 9 chemical spill found that chemical storage tanks at Freedom Industries did not meet industry standards, federal safety inspectors have found.
Tanks at the Elk River facility were "not necessarily in full compliance with" industry and federal government standards, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said during testimony at a congressional field hearing on the spill.
CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso revealed the October 2013 review of Freedom's tank farm in describing his agency's preliminary research into the spill that polluted the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians with the chemical Crude MCHM.
"The tanks in use at Freedom Industries were over one-half century old," Moure-Eraso said during a field hearing held by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. "Considering the best way to improve the safety of tanks at facilities that have similar tanks in use is an important question."
During the hearing, CSB officials also revealed a blown-up poster of a state Department of Environmental Protection photo showing two small holes in the bottom of the MCHM tank that leaked.
The CSB is investigating the Elk River spill to find out what happened and make recommendations to avoid another such incident. The agency does not have authority to issue citations or levy fines, but makes recommendations to other agencies and to industry about ways to improve safety.
In his prepared testimony, Moure-Eraso said that Tank Engineering and Management Consultants, a firm that was hired by Freedom, conducted the October 2013 inspection at the facility.
Moure-Eraso said that the firm's review noted that Crude MCHM was not considered "hazardous" for the purposes of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's spill prevention and counter measures rule. Because of that, Moure-Eraso said, the specific tank that leaked Jan. 9 was not examined in the October 2013 inspection.
CSB investigators have found that the "secondary containment wall" -- composed of cinder blocks and surrounding the MCHM tank that leaked -- "provided very little protection from a possible release."
"Company documents further show that the wall was not lined and that tank 396 rested directly on porous material including gravel and soil," Moure-Eraso said.
The consultant firm's inspection did examine other tanks at the site and found the tanks had "been maintained to some structural adequacy, but not necessarily in full compliance" with EPA standards or an American Petroleum Institute standard called API-653.
Johnnie Banks, the CSB's lead investigator in the Freedom Industries probe, said that, among other things, the October 2013 inspection noted potential issues with settling of the tanks that could have affected their stability.
"There was some concern about the condition of the tanks," Banks said after Monday's committee hearing.
Moure-Eraso said that API-653 "is considered the prevailing voluntary good practice" for above-ground storage tanks, and was developed to establish a uniform national program that assists state and local governments in above-ground storage tank regulations.
"It is important to note that API 653 is the very first safeguard for improving the safety and reliability of above-ground storage tanks," Moure-Eraso said. "[API 653] covers basically every age-related damage mechanism known, including, but not limited to corrosion, brittle fracture, and improper fabrication," Moure-Eraso said.
Moure-Eraso said that, "While there are laws prohibiting polluting to waterways with a spill, there are not really any clear, mandatory standards for how you site, design, maintain and inspect non-petroleum tanks at a storage facility."
Later, during a short public comment period, Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition reminded the committee that the Freedom Industries site had received a stormwater pollution permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, Rosser noted, has said that, "This incident could have been prevented or minimized just with the regulations we have in place, but it just didn't click in anybody's mind that this was a concern."
Rosser said that the Elk River spill revealed what can happen when the state doesn't strongly enforce the environmental and water quality protections that are already on the books.
"This is not just about one leaky tank," she told the committee. "Please let's not have a narrow view."
In a 2008 report, the CSB noted that no EPA program specifically regulates non-petroleum above-ground storage tanks, and that such actions have been left up to individual states.
The above-ground storage tank bill working its way through the West Virginia Legislature does not mention API-653, and leaves the writing of any safety standards up to the DEP.
Moure-Eraso encouraged lawmakers on the federal level and in West Virginia not just to require tank inspections and leak-detection systems, but to also focus on broader requirements for "inherent safety."
"For chemical storage tanks like this, the first question that should always be asked is, do they need to be near the water supply for some reason?" Moure-Eraso said. "The facility just did not have to be where it was. And although relocating it would have had some costs, those pale beside the costs that thousands of West Virginia residents and businesses are now paying for this disaster.
"Inspections are essential, but they are not a complete solution by any means," Moure-Eraso said. "What is needed -- and what I hope this legislation leads to -- is a holistic approach to preventing these incidents."
During the public comment session, Maya Nye of the group People Concerned About Chemical Safety, also urged lawmakers to take the broad approach advocated by the CSB.
"We need to take a hard look at chemical safety from cradle to grave," Nye said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.