CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Cleanup crews at Freedom Industries are still several weeks away from emptying all of the site's chemical storage tanks, and still don't have a clear idea of how much of which materials could have contaminated soil at the site.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is overseeing the cleanup, which is being carried out by Freedom Industries and contractors for the chemical company.
Mike Dorsey, director of emergency response and homeland security for the DEP, said he hopes remediation of the facility might be completed by late spring. However, state and federal government officials remain unsure of the extent of contamination in a key part of the site.
The area around the chemical tanks in the northern end of the site -- including Tank 396, which leaked Crude MCHM into the Elk River on Jan. 9 -- has yet to be fully investigated, largely because the eight chemical tanks there haven't been removed.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin is conducting a criminal investigation of the leak. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board also is examining the incident. Neither agency has completed its work in that area, Dorsey said, but those investigators should finish in the area soon.
"The sooner we can get in there, the better," Dorsey said in an interview last week.
Until the tanks are removed, he said, it's impossible to judge the extent of soil contamination or to know how much remediation must be done to clean up the area.
"The stuff was flowing around underground and who knows where," Dorsey said. "I don't expect to find large quantities of it, but I expect to find some."
The presence of more MCHM in the soil at the site not only will require additional cleanup, but that work likely will bring with it more of the licorice-like smell Charleston residents have become familiar with since the Freedom Industries leak.
"It's going to smell again, and it's going to scare people, and I understand that," Dorsey said.
It's not clear how long the tank removal itself will take, but the DEP is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a plan for air monitoring during the cleanup.
"They were talking about what would be the best way to monitor for this stuff," Dorsey said. "I don't know if they will be able to do anything in real time, though."
So far at the site, cleanup crews have dug a ditch that is several hundred feet long and four- to six-feet deep and is designed to intercept any runoff of potentially contaminated water from the site before it could possibly reach the Elk River.
Materials captured by the ditch are pumped into the other tanks at the site for storage until they can be safely removed from the site, Dorsey said.
Crews also have installed monitoring wells to gather data on potential groundwater contamination, but complete results of that monitoring have not been made public.
One thing that's different about the Freedom Industries' cleanup is that the DEP is not doing it under the authority of programs the public typically thinks of for toxic remediation, such as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, better known as Superfund or CERCLA.
Because of the lack of testing of MCHM's toxicity, the chemical has never been listed as one of the substances regulated under programs like CERCLA. So the DEP used other legal avenues in its response to last month's leak.
When DEP Secretary Randy Huffman worked out a consent order with Freedom Industries last month, the order cited the state's authority under Freedom's Clean Water Act stormwater pollution permit.