By Rafael Moure-Eraso
It was unthinkable. A chemical used to process coal, which smells like licorice, of uncertain toxicity, flows out of a nondescript, overlooked aboveground tank, into the Elk River and then into the drinking water supply of hundreds of thousands of adults, children and infants in and around the capital city of West Virginia.
The Chemical Safety Board investigation of the leak of up to 7,500 gallons of crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is underway. We will release our findings as soon as they are developed. But I don't think the residents and officials of Kanawha and surrounding counties need to wait for another CSB report for guidance on what needs to be done to better protect workers and the public from chemical accidents. I join those who have already called for action, to come together and create a local authority to serve as a watchdog for chemical safety in the Kanawha River valley.
Three years ago this month we came to Institute to hold a public meeting in which the board offered several recommendations to Kanawha County and the state in the wake of the Bayer CropScience waste tank explosion that killed two workers and came perilously close to releasing deadly methyl isocyanate into the atmosphere.
We recommended that the county, working with the state, establish a hazardous chemical release prevention program to enhance safety and optimize emergency responses. It would be a county industrial safety authority, paid for by fees assessed on the companies processing or handling potentially dangerous chemicals. As an example, we cited the successful program in California's Contra Costa County, which has an equally dense industrial chemical base.
State and local authorities tell us they considered the recommendation but for whatever reasons it has not been adopted.
That recommendation was aimed at highly hazardous chemicals such as those used at high-hazard chemical processing sites, and not necessarily at storage facilities such as Freedom Industries. Still, we recommended such an entity be empowered to determine just what posed a high hazard. Perhaps qualified inspectors would have considered aging chemical storage tanks, located just upstream from a public drinking water treatment plant, to be potentially "highly hazardous" and worthy of a closer look.