Freedom Industries cleanup continues; contamination extent still unknown
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.
Other enforcement actions by the DEP have cited the state's "narrative" water-quality standards. Those standards don't outline specific numeric pollution limits, but instead simply list conditions not allowable in state streams, such as odors, the need for an "unreasonable degree of treatment" or creation of a "sheen on the surface of the water."
Typical cleanup programs like Superfund include a variety of requirements and options for public comment, public disclosure of records and other public involvement.
So far, the DEP has allowed a 30-day comment period on its consent order, and the agency is considering making public a complete copy of whatever long-term remediation plan is eventually written. However, it's not clear what public involvement the DEP will include in the development of that plan.
Dorsey said he's confident chemicals from the site are not still making their way into the Elk River, but he concedes that some parts of the cleanup could be difficult. For example, crews could run into more situations like the one on Jan. 30, when a backhoe hit an underground pipe that contained some stray MCHM, sending the licorice smell back into the community's air.
"There are pipes everywhere and no good maps," Dorsey said. "It's not what you would expect to see."
Additionally, removal of the tanks and remediation of soil in the area where the leak occurred could be complicated by questions regarding the stability of the narrow riverbank at that end of the facility, Dorsey said.
Pointing at an aerial photo showing bare spots, holes and depressions along the riverbank, Dorsey said, "If you look at all of these humps, they are all little landslides."
"I don't want these tanks to end up down there," Dorsey said, pointing to the Elk River on the map.
Dorsey said another problem cleanup crews have had is the large amount of stormwater runoff coming from off the site onto Freedom's property. Officials have looked into whether any of that runoff was made worse by construction projects several years ago at Yeager Airport, atop the hill above the Freedom site. They concluded that there was "no obvious stream of water coming off the hillside," Dorsey said. "We're not seeing that."
A stormwater pipe that was intended to carry runoff from the tank-farm site across the property and into the river, though, was a major conduit for the MCHM that got into the Elk, Dorsey said. He said that when he arrived at the site the day of the leak, MCHM from the leaking tank was entering that runoff pipe, which was rusted through on the bottom, and being carried into the Elk.
Despite the unknowns and hurdles, Dorsey said he thinks the cleanup can be accomplished fairly quickly.
The DEP consent order requires Freedom to have all its tanks emptied by March 15, and Dorsey said he's confident that work will be completed within the next two weeks.
That DEP deal also required Freedom to begin dismantling tanks by March 15, and Dorsey said he believes that work will start well before then.
"I don't think it will take very long, once we start knocking tanks down," Dorsey said.
In mid-January, Huffman said he thought the Tomblin administration's plans for dealing with the site were pretty clear.
"I can say for certainty that the state of West Virginia is not going to abandon that site or abandon the remediation efforts until there is 100-percent certainty that the risk of this stuff getting back in the water has been eliminated -- not just minimized," said Huffman, who is a gubernatorial appointee. "I know what my boss is going to say about that, and I think I can make that statement. We just can't have that possibility existing."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.