Nearly 300,000 West Virginia residents were readying for a sixth straight day without water after a chemical leaked through a one-inch hole in a steel tank and escaped through a concrete secondary containment wall.
On Thursday (Jan. 9), Freedom Industries' 40,000-gallon tank leaked up to 7,500 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), a chemical foaming agent used to "wash" coal, into the Elk River in Charleston, WV.
The company has since been ordered to remove the contents of its remaining storage tanks, and federal investigators have opened an investigation into the release that has prevented residents from using water for anything but flushing toilets.
Conflicted reports have emerged about the timeline and discovery of the spill.
Nine West Virginia counties have been under a state of emergency since a chemical used to "wash" coal seeped out of a steel tank and leaked through secondary containment.
Freedom Industries' President Gary Southern said that on-site employees noticed the leak about 10:30 a.m. ET Thursday and started cleanup.
However, the state's Department of Environmental Protection said its inspectors discovered the leak at 11:10 a.m. after residents complained about the odor of the water.
When DEP inspectors arrived at the plant, they saw chemicals seeping through a containment dike and no cleanup underway, according to The New York Times.
The New York Times also reported that the storage facility had not been subject to a state or federal inspection since 1991. West Virginia requires inspections only for chemical production facilities, not storage facilities.
State of Emergency
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a State of Emergency for nine counties following a notice from the West Virginia American Water Company that its water supply had become contaminated.
"West Virginians in the affected service areas are urged NOT to use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing," Tomblin said.
President Obama signed a federal emergency declaration Friday (Jan. 10), authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide relief effort and assistance.
Freedom Industries' Southern issued a statement Friday, saying, "Since the discovery of the leak, safety for residents in Kanwha and surrounding counties has been Freedom Industries' first priority.
"Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination," the statement said.
"At this point, Freedom Industries is still working to determine the amount of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in processing coal, that has been released, as the first priority was safety, containment and cleanup."
Shutdown Order Issued
Freedom Industries was ordered Friday to remove the contents of its 11 remaining above-ground storage tanks at the Etowah Terminal, the DEP announced.
The contents of three other tanks, including the one that leaked and all containing MCHM, were already removed and relocated to another facility.
Earlier Friday, the DEP issued a Cease Operations Order to Freedom Industries. The agency's Division of Air Quality also issued a Notice of Violation to the company for causing "statutory air pollution by discharging MCHM into the air."
Freedom Industries was required to start removing all material from all above-ground storage tanks within 24 hours of the order being issued. All of the removed material must be stored in an off-site area with adequate secondary containment.
"[M]y DEP ordered the company storing the chemical ... to take immediate action and stop additional flows of the chemical into the Elk River. This discharge of pollutants is unacceptable," Tomblin said at an afternoon press conference Friday.
Freedom Industries via feww.wordpress.com
Freedom Industries was ordered to remove the contents of its 11 remaining above-ground storage tanks. Nearly 300,000 residents have been unable to use water for anything but flushing toilets since Thursday when the chemical leak occurred.
Also, the company was ordered to submit for approval within 24 hours an appropriate plan of corrective action. The plan must include detailed guidance for implementing remediation of all contaminated soil and/or groundwater as well as a plan and schedule for the ultimate disposition of the products stored in the tanks.
On Saturday (Jan. 11), the U.S. Chemical Safety Board announced that it had also sent an investigative team to the scene of the spill.
"This incident continues to impact the people of West Virginia—our goal is to find out what happened to allow a leak of such magnitude to occur and to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place to prevent a similar incident from occurring," CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said in a press release.
By Sunday morning, little to no trace of contamination showed up in tests at a water treatment plant downstream from the site of the leak, officials reported.
Two tests Sunday morning at the treatment facility showed zero parts per million for water going in and out of the plant. In order to lift the ban, water samples must consistently show the chemical level at or below one parts per million.
"I believe we're at a point where we can say we're seeing light at the end of the tunnel," Tomblin said at a Sunday news conference.
Ten people have been admitted to hospitals with symptoms that were not life-threatening; 169 people have been treated for symptoms related to chemical exposure, CNN.com reported.
At least eight lawsuits have already been filed against the chemical company. Some of those complaints also name West Virginia American Water, claiming it should have warned the public about the leak sooner, The Charleston Gazette reported.
Most of the lawsuits have been filed on behalf of businesses forced to shut down. One, however, was filed by a man who had been scheduled to get a new kidney, which he had been waiting for since last summer. The hospital was forced to cancel the procedure because it was without water.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said that federal law enforcement authorities had opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release.
"Yesterday's release of a potentially dangerous chemical into our water supply has put hundreds of thousands of West Virginians at risk, severely disrupted our region's economy, and upended people's daily lives," Goodwin said in a statement Friday.
Editor's Note (8:11 a.m. ET Jan. 15, 2014): Freedom Industries has no connection whatsoever with Freedom Chemical Corp., a polymer coatings formulator based in Los Angeles, CA. Freedom Chemical develops and manufactures coating products for secondary containment systems "to help mitigate precisely this type of situation," a company spokesman said.