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CSB: Corroded Tanks Were Not Inspected

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Severe corrosion damage unchecked by adequate inspections likely caused a January chemical spill that left nearly 300,000 West Virginians without drinking water for almost a week, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

On Jan. 9, Freedom Industries' 48,000-gallon tank leaked about 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) mixed with propylene glycol phenyl ethers (PPH) into the Elk River in Charleston, WV.


"...Freedom Industries did not have a rigorous inspection program for these chemical storage tanks sited closed by the Elk River and just upstream from the facility supplying water to hundreds of thousands of people," investigator Lucy Tyler said.

MCHM is a foaming agent used to "wash" coal.

No Inspections

In an update on the investigation this month, the CSB said it had not yet found any record of a formal, industry-approved inspection being performed on any of the chemical storage tanks at Freedom Industries before the leak.

Informal inspections may have occurred, the CSB said, noting preliminary findings, but investigators have "found a lack of appropriate engineering inspections with prescribed frequency and rigor of inspections."

At the time of the incident, the New York Times 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.

Damage to Multiple Tanks

So far, CSB's investigation found that corrosion caused two small holes (about 0.4 inch to 0.75 inch) in the bottom of the 48,000-gallon tank. The corrosion was probably caused by water leaking through holes in the roof and settling on the tank floor, the CSB said.

A nearby tank containing the same chemical had a similar hole penetrating the bottom, and other tanks showed multiple signs of pitting and metallurgical damage, investigators said.


The preliminary investigation found that corrosion had caused two small holes in the bottom of the tank, plus holes in the roof were allowing water to leak in and settle on the tank floor.

"While our investigation is still underway, it has become clear that Freedom Industries did not have a rigorous inspection program for these chemical storage tanks sited close by the Elk River and just upstream from the facility supplying water to hundreds of thousands of people," CSB investigator Lucy Tyler said in a statement.

Public Meeting

The CSB announced the investigation update July 16 at a public meeting. The meeting had been called to release a final report and recommendations on the combustible-dust explosion and fire that killed three workers in 2010 at AL Solutions Inc., a company that processes titanium and zirconium scrap metal.

"An underlying root cause of many of our investigations, including these latest two in West Virginia, is the lack of thorough inspections and hazard reviews, and the need for stricter regulations in areas where we find self-policing is not preventing accidents," said CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso.

"The Board looks forward to the team's final report, which will examine regulatory oversight of aboveground storage tanks in West Virginia and the U.S.," Moure-Eraso said.

Seeking Oversight

In January, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced storage tank legislation, the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act (S. 1961), to protect surface water from contamination by chemical storage facilities.

The CSB uploaded this video of the tank's dismantling for metallurgical analysis.

The proposal would cost about $114 million over four years, likely busting the federal threshold for unfunded mandates in the private sector.

According to a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate released June 5, the Manchin measure would affect public and private owners and operators of tens of thousands of storage tanks nationwide.

(The measure broadly defines covered chemical storage tanks as onshore, fixed, above-ground storage containers from which a release of a chemical could pose a risk of harm to a public water system.)

Only a small number of chemical storage tanks owned by public entities would be affected, putting their cost of compliance below the annual established by the 1995 Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA).

But compliance in the private sector would "probably" top that threshold, CBO said.

Metal Analysis Underway

Investigators oversaw metal extraction from the tank for metallurgical analysis. The CSB released a video of the tank dismantling, which used high-pressure water tools to cut through the metal in several places.

According to CSB Investigation Supervisor Johnnie Banks, who oversaw the dismantling, "I am confident the forensic data we will obtain will enable us to determine the exact cause of the corrosion and, we hope, determine how long it had been going on."

Banks said the team was also trying to determine installation dates for the tanks to review manufacturing and service history.

Foo Conner / @iwasaround via

Nearly 300,000 people were without potable water for almost a week; 369 people were treated for possible chemical exposure and 13 were hospitalized. The CSB said "the public continues to distrust declarations that the water is safe to drink."

"Whatever the governing regulations, and whatever the precise failure mechanism, companies have a responsibility to operate in a safe manner. Not inspecting corrodible steel aboveground storage tanks proved to be an accident waiting to happen," Banks said.

Public's Distrust

According to the investigators, the state's Department of Environmental Protection identified the release of MCHM at 11:15 a.m., but West Virginia America Water Company did not notify the public of the "Do Not Use" order until over five hours later.

The governor issued a state of emergency order that night at 9:30, and the president declared an emergency and announced federal assistance the following day.

"[T]he public continues to distrust declarations that the water is safe to drink," CSB investigators noted.

There is some information available on the acute effects of MCHM and PPH, but little is known about chronic health impacts from exposure at low concentration levels, the CSB said.

The CSB noted that 369 patients were treated for possible exposure following the chemical release into the drinking water, and 13 were hospitalized. Of these:

  • 38 percent exhibited symptoms of nausea;
  • 28.5 percent showed skin rashes; and
  • 28 percent experienced vomiting.

"This accident was a disaster of the highest magnitude, was preventable, and must be averted in any other community," Moure-Eraso said.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Containment; Corrosion; Environmental Protection; Government; Inspection; Steel; Tanks; U.S. Chemical Safety Board

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