Freedom to spill: Coal must take bad with good

January 13, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.


Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

My apologies for not having much to say on Coal Tattoo the last few days, especially given the huge coal-related story that’s been breaking here in Charleston and the surrounding region in West Virginia. I’ve been focusing on helping with our daily Gazette coverage, and doing several broader examinations of the underlying issues involved in the chemical spill at Freedom Industries (see here, here, here and here).

One of the really unbelievable things it that there is even a debate about whether this is a coal-related story … I mean, take a look at what we reported about Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s comments on this:

Also at the Saturday briefing Tomblin pushed back at a reporter who connected the ongoing water crisis to the coal industry.

“This was not a coal company incident,” the governor shot back. “This was a chemical company incident.”

On Sunday night he did the same.

“This was not a coal company, this was a chemical supplier, where the leak occurred,” he said. “As far as I know there was no coal company within miles.”

In an Associated Press account, a coal industry lobbyist took up where the governor left off:

“This is a chemical spill accident. It just so happens that the chemical has some applications to the coal industry, just that fact alone shouldn’t cause people to point fingers at the coal industry,” said Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Bostic said the coal industry is very carefully regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection and several federal agencies that ensure it is safe from the very first step in opening a mine to ongoing operations.

“The environmental risk that’s associated with coal mining, we feel it’s well regulated,” Bostic said.

One problem with all of this, of course, is that the coal industry is always very insistent that every single job — direct, indirect, induced, whatever — be counted whenever anyone discusses the positive economic impacts of the coal-mining business to West Virginia. If that’s the way the industry and its political supporters want the discussion to go, then they’ve got to own this sort of accident as well.

Chemical Spill

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin discusses the chemical  spill that led to state of emergency and water ban in the state capital and surrounding areas on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)

The other thing, though, is that there are other clear connections between this chemical spill and its impacts and what the coal industry’s effects on West Virginia are like all the time. Plenty of West Virginia communities have watched their drinking water supplies be either polluted or dried up because of coal (see here, here and here). Me and my neighbors are getting a taste right now of what some coalfield residents live with all the time.

And then there’s this, explained most clearly on Friday by the folks at Appalachian Voices:

News reports of Thursday’s spill of a coal-processing chemical into West Virginia’s Elk River—and emergency orders to thousands of people to not drink or use their tap water—are currently focused on the still-unknown potential for direct harm to human health.

But the widespread disruption caused by the spill raises other important questions, including: How could a relatively small-volume spill in one small river cut off drinking water access to roughly 300,000 people across eight counties—16% of the state’s entire population?

An increasing number of private wells in southwestern and central West Virginia, where the spill occurred, have been contaminated by decades of coal mining and processing. One result has been an ongoing expansion of municipal water systems to rural communities that would otherwise rely on well water.

At the same time, shrinking tax revenue and declining investments in public infrastructure have compelled localities to contract with private companies like American Water to provide drinking water services. Driven by profit margins, companies have aggressively consolidated their businesses, leading them to serve ever larger distribution networks from only a handful of treatment plants and drinking water intakes, as is the case with yesterday’s spill.

The fact that Gov. Tomblin wants to evade the truth so hard that he wants to ignore any connections between this crisis and the coal industry doesn’t bode well for us seeing any meaningful state-level reforms come about as a result of the Freedom Industries spill.

34 Responses to “Freedom to spill: Coal must take bad with good”

  1. Al Justcie says:

    What Bostic really meant, ‘the DEP is fully controlled by the coal industry.’

  2. Maria says:

    It will be interesting to see who the supposed “Executives” at “Freedom Industries” are tied to in the end. I’m not sure how a UK national who lives in Florida and a former sports bar owner who was convicted of cocaine trafficking (then recently helping feds make undercover buys of cocaine to lessen his tax evasion wrap) got into the coal washing chemical business.

    The fact is the coal industry’s endless propaganda and “War on the EPA” has led us down this road. The WV DEP is nothing more than a lapdog to the energy industry thanks to our state’s leadership.

    The fact that our politicians are so concerned about bad PR for big coal, even while the water of 300,000 people has been poisoned by the chemicals central to its processing, tells the story.

  3. T Sherwood says:

    Thanks for your hard work, Ken.
    Don’t know if I missed it, but I read that Freedom controls more than 1 million gallons of storage at – or near – the site, including both above- and underground tanks? They said, I believe, that they had located a leak in one above-ground (?) tank on Thursday morning, and indicated that less than 5,000 gallons leaked from it. Later evidence points to more.

    So: 1) Is there assurance that all leaking from Freedom site(s) has stopped? 2) Are there ways of checking the age and integrity of all the remaining tanks, and know whether they are filled or not? (and with what?) and 3) Is there a regulatory system in place to force retirement and replacement of aging tanks?

    Again, “Thanks,” to you and other news writers staying up late to keep on top of this thing for the rest of us, near and far. Heart goes out to friends there going through this.

  4. BOUTTIME says:

    I would hope that all facilities such as coal preparation plants that use this dangerous, but mostly unknown chemical have been shut down until all there sites and useage of this chemical are properly evaluated.

  5. Jim says:

    My question is this:

    Now that they allegedly have the test down to 20 min or something why don’t they go ahead and test all the streams, public water and wells around sludge empoundments for this chemical since I’m sure a lot of it is in the ground in these areas???

  6. Jim says:

    Second observation:

    They seem to have had to develop testing for this. I’m guessing that if this chemicals smell had not been detected the leak could have gone totally unnoticed by both the water company and the state.

    If a water company is drawing water from a river that has numerous facilities along it that have the potential to contaminate the water supply, should the chemical plants and storage facilities not have to provide a list to the state of the various chemicals stored or shipped to and from and then the water company be required to test for them weekly?

    I mean if they are not testing then how can WV American Water guarantee that something undetectable by smell but even worse for public health is not being drawn in on a regular basis??

    Finally a restaraunt has to apply for a permit, have their facility inspected by the Health Dept before opening and then on a fairly regular basis has to be inspected by the Health Dept.

    A restaraunt could maybe get a few hundred people sick???

    Why then are the chemical plants and other facilities that have a far greater potential to threaten a large number of people subject so so much less inspection??

  7. Ted says:

    I have a question (that may have already been asked and I inadvertently missed it): is this chemical in any way used in fracking?

    I realize that this particular storage site was for distribution to coal prep plants. However, since the DEP, CDC nor other agencies apparently had any idea how to deal with this substance, it got me wondering if this could be one of the chemical agents in the “one half of one percent” of fracking fluid that isn’t water or sand. Any ideas anybody?

    Otherwise, a GREAT job Ken. I actually work for another media outlet in Charleston but you are the standard bearer for sure–thanks for your stellar efforts…

  8. Matt Wasson says:

    Another thing that hasn’t gotten much mention, but which clearly links this disaster to coal, is this simple fact: the leakage of crude MCHM into West Virginians’ water supply has been going on a lot longer than the last 5 days. The prep plants that use this chemical routinely inject it into abandoned mine shafts or pump it into slurry impoundments where it both leaches into groundwater and is released into streams.

    There are a lot bigger questions than whether or not this disaster is linked to the “coal industry,” but that question should be regarded as firmly settled!

  9. Jeff Bary says:

    Hi Ken,

    I’ve been reading your articles appearing the Gazette, so I was not surprised that you hadn’t posted anything on Coal Tattoo. It’s obvious you are working hard on this story and we are all much better informed and appreciative of your work.

    I also appreciate your recognition that living without drinkable water is a fact of everyday life for many in central Appalachia. However, this spill has caused me to wonder if it had happened in an area like McDowell County, would it have garnered the same level of attention or mobilized so many state and federal agencies to work toward remediation. I am afraid the answer is “no.”

    Keep shining a light on these questionable practices by the coal industry and their affiliates. Let’s hope awareness reaches a level where elected officials both in WV and Washington will not be allowed to rest until the air and water in central Appalachia are fully protected.

  10. Bo Webb says:

    Matt Wasson is correct. And, in addition to MCHS and other chemical “scrubbers” being injected and pumped into sludge dams above our communities, these highly toxic chemicals are being transported all through our state wherever there are coal processing plants. This is a coal issue, no way around it.

  11. Steve says:

    The above mentioned chemical is mixed along with diesel fuel or sometimes vegetable oil in flotation cells along with air pressure and turbulence to create a froth. The bubbles created by this mixture will cause the very small coal particles to stick to the bubbles or froth, while the small rock or slurry will not stick and sink to the bottom where it then goes to a press or thickener. The coal, water and chemicals are then sent to centrifugal dryers that remove the water from the coal. Most of the chemical will be dried along with the coal and sent out with the product. The water enters a sump and re-used. The slurry doesn’t have the chemical in it as the rock will not adhere to the froth. Years ago, because of the lack of technology these small particles were not able to be captured and prep. plants simply let them go. Much of it ended up in the rivers and streams.

  12. BOUTTIME says:

    According to your prep plant coal cleaning process the centrifugal dryers spin all the water out of the clean coal fines froth & the MCHM goes out with the clean coal fines. This is interesting but the MSDS indicates that MCHM solubility in water is ‘appreciable’ … And since this process uses large volumes of water there is highly likely going to be large volumes of MCHM in water solution that cannot be separated by the centrifuge so it will go out in the waste stream. Please clarify if I’m in error here.

  13. S.A.D says:

    I find it rather curious that everyone is pointing at the coal industry in regards to this chemical. Freedom also does business with the oil/gas industry and they uses methylcyclohexanemethanol which is an associated chemical. I’m in no way saying that its right for any company/industry to be able to use toxic chemicals especially when/if they are not controlled by the appropriate government agency, I’m just tired of seeing the coal industry getting slammed while the gas/oil extraction companies have been getting a free ride. For information on the chemical a good site is Toxnet, Toxicology Data Network/

  14. Steve says:

    The amount of frother or MCHM per ton of fine coal processed would be measured in cubic centimeters. Really not much at all based on tons recovered. A lot of water is used in each cell,but the froth or bubbles that froth over (that has the fine coal, the chemical and diesel stuck to it)has just enough push water added to send it to the dryers. Much of the water in the cells would go out to the thickener and either pressed out or pumped to an impoundment. This water may have a trace if that of the chemical.

  15. Frank O'Hara says:

    Accidents don’t just happen. If it is predictable then it is preventable. Thank you Mr. Ward for your reporting. It is refreshing that you are willing to ask the important questions, share the story. It is appreciated.

    In many ways we all bear some responsibility. Allowing the status quo to exist, failing to understanding fragile ecological networks, inability to recognize infrastructure of economics, social structures, political and legal systems. The problem is deep rooted, within culture and education. It’s time Governor stop evading the truth and start working towards viable solutions.

  16. Steve says:

    Yes, accidents do and can happen. And sometimes repairs are not made in timely manner because of sloppy planning or maybe plain old greed. This seems to maybe be the case here. But, we also need to look at how and where our water is being processed. Why did American water put all their eggs in one basket? I don’t think it was entirely just to serve those in rural areas who’s wells no longer produce. Look at the amount in miles of water line this one plant serves. Look at the financial impact in such a huge area by tainting one water intake of one water plant in one rural state. You don’t think there are others who would wish us harm looking at this through the eyes of the press and media and wondering just what they could do?

  17. BOUTTIME says:


    Thanks for your reply with the additional prep plant coal cleaning tech talk, but you did not address the issue of the MCHM being in solution in the process water stream & what happens to it. You did however tell us that a ‘trace’ amount of MCHM may go out with the waste (refuse) … So how much is a ‘trace’? 1ppm, 100ppm or 1000ppm actually no one knows & really didn’t care until now, but I’ll bet we know those exact amounts in very near future.

  18. Ted says:

    Give me a break! This is about COAL. Freedom wouldn’t have had the tank full of this unknown chemical if coal companies weren’t using it (without having knowledge of the full health & environmental effects).

  19. Jim says:

    So RE: What Steve was saying:

    First why doesn’t the DEP test the waste water coming out of a coal prep plant for this chemical now that they have a test and we’d know exactly how much was released. How about testing a sampling of wells and streams for it nearby also. If very little does get discharged this would tell the tale right.

    Then RE the consolidation of source of water as Steve mentions. If WV American Water had continued to operate the Culloden water treatment facility, which comes from an empoundment instead of “putting all their eggs in one basket” local jobs would have been preserved and the water supply would be less at risk from a homeland security basis.

  20. Ted Boettner says:

    If West Virginia coal companies used a dry process for cleaning coal, would this chemical be here?

  21. Steve says:

    The amount of frother in the water going to the thickener would in all probabability be less than 1pp million. As for who checks water at and around preparation plants, it is the same as any mining operation, the DEP. But companies have their oun enviormental crews who monitor also.
    Ted, some coals are dry processed or direct shiped. You have to remember that different customers want different products. A prep. Plant can provide different ash,moisture and so on, depending on what the customer needs are for their particular buisness. It could be Met. Coal for steel production one day, steam coal the next for electrical generation or coal for a chemical company the next shift.

  22. Bill Howley says:


    Thanks for the information about the coal cleaning process. Unfortunately, you have not provided any conclusive information about (1) the concentration of crude MCHM actually leaves a prep plant and (2) what is the concentration below which there is no impact on human health. “In all probability” is not a statement of the concentration that leaves a prep plant. It’s a total guess on your part. Unless there is monitoring of actual outflows of process water, there is no answer to the question of the concentration in outflow. There is no established level below which there are no health impacts in humans, period. It doesn’t exist.

    So without a monitoring history and with no understanding of the harmfulness of any concentration, there is no way for us to draw any conclusions about outflow concentrations or their impacts.

  23. PlethoDon Juan says:

    This whole mess makes me wonder…Does the centralization of the 9 county water supply also include sewage/return flow? Yes the contamination of a large water supply intake is heinous and shows a weakness in the system. However, if the same plant is processing the effluent of homes from 9 counties then does that mean the same customers that would have been straight-piping their sewage into the nearest waterways are now no longer polluting their local streams? If this is true then think of the thousands of miles of streams that would otherwise be receiving daily doses of raw sewage from the same homes now connected to the system.

    I’m also wondering now how many plastic bottles are going to go into the streams and rivers of West Virginia because of this incident? Its easy to point fingers at a particular company or industry that could have been better regulated or inspected when those same fingers are chucking their bottles of Deer Park, Poland Spring or Aquafina out the car window (I suppose I have a poor view of humanity but I spend alot of my free time picking up the endless flow of litter along hiways and streams). MCHM will eventually dissipate to below detectable levels but the plastic from all the bottled water distributed will last for decades or more. I hope the locals keep this in mind and that they get their normal water supply back ASAP.

  24. Cindy Rank says:

    PlethoDon Juan,

    Unfortunately supplying water TO homes through a central water system like WV American Water or our more localized PSDs does NOT mean that sewage/return flow is also incorporated into those systems. … eg. Here in Upshur County the Buckhannon Water system that carries water into ever expanding outlying areas does not include or even wait for any accompanying centralized sewage system to be in place but rather relies on individual septic or other means of disposal, adequate or not.

  25. greenspace says:

    The federal “SPCC” rules require a spill plan signed by a PE, secondary containment around storage tanks, routine inspections, annual training, and documentation. These rules are designed and intended to protect against spills to navigable waters. However, these rules only apply to oils and petroleum fuels. Some states have developed their own rules to include chemicals as well. Responsible owners/operators manage chemicals together with oils, following SPCC as a “best management practice”, with or without state rules, to avoid potential spills and liabilities.

    The point is, there is a template already in place for safely managing any liquid fuel or chemical. There are many chemical tanks in close proximity to storm drains and river banks. They all need to have sound management and secondary containment, to avoid incidents like this.

    No, this is not about coal. Its about safe chemical management, regardless of the end use of that chemical. Soil and ground water quality need to be protected as well, whether or not the facility is close to a river or storm drain.

  26. Ted says:

    Greenspace says: “No, this is not about coal.”

    I guess you’re right. All of that was stored on the Elk River because they use it at the Lottery Headquarters, right?

    That’s also why the WVCA made that interesting tweet…

  27. Bill Howley says:

    Actually, there would be a lot more jobs in the Kanawha Valley if chemical companies were required to maintain their tanks and equipment. The coal industry as job creators? Apparently you haven’t read the history of the coal industry and employment. The coal industry has done nothing but destroy jobs for the last 70 years.

    And this recent spill has done it for future investment in jobs and attracting new businesses to the area. Who wants to do business in an area with this kind of threat hanging over it?

    So don’t pull the bogus coal industry jobs card in this discussion. It won’t work any more.

  28. BOUTTIME says:

    Thanks Bill

  29. Steve says:

    Tell tat to the coal miner in Boone county bill.

  30. Steve says:

    PlethoDon Juan, This preventable mess will,or should have us pointing our fingers in a lot of different directions. Why did American water have only one intake in a location where they have access to two rivers? Why not several on both? If they can run water line to Logan county, this shouldn’t be a problem.
    Why no monitoring system in place when they had to know what was located up stream? The state doesn’t monitor storage tanks? So, they have egg on their face also. And the city of Charleston, well, we can’t leave them out as being completely in the dark either can we. What do they do, just collect B&O tax?
    I’m afraid the focus of all this will swing to the coal industry by those who wish it gone, instead of finding a solution that will prevent our water from being contaminated again. l

  31. greenspace says:

    Pennsylvania has a rule requiring facilities that store significant quantities of chemicals to send annual chemical inventories to the companies with intakes within 20 miles down stream. If a spill occurs, the facility is required to immediately notify the downstream users, as well as the regulators. Good idea

  32. Jim says:

    Why are they not testing the water that is coming out of peoples taps now? Are they afraid to????

  33. Bob Kincaid says:

    Doesn’t the fact that J. Clifford Forrest, intimately associated with ChemStream, Freedom, Poca Blending, inter alia, (not to mention being the guarantor to some degree of FI’s bankruptcy) is a coal baron with a Pennsylvania address and lots of coal holdings in Pennsylvania put to rest the assertion that this isn’t about coal?

    We badly need NOW a vigorous examination of exactly where MCHM and its components are used, in what quantities and over what period of time. It would be nice to make a complete assay of just how many toxins are in our communities and what becomes of them at the end of their useful chemical lives.

  34. Lily says:

    Mr. Ward

    I listened to you on NPR today and want to thank you for your clear account of the chemical spill in the Elk River. You sound like an honest man, and your concerns about inspections have motivated me to ask questions of the people in charge of our water supply here in southeast Michigan. Keep up the good work.


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