The Charleston Gazette has a long and proud tradition as a crusading newspaper. Our late publisher, W.E. "Ned" Chilton III coined the phrase "sustained outrage" and insisted the Gazette live up to that motto with long-term coverage of important issues facing West Virginia and the nation.
The mission of the "Gazette Watchdog" is simple: To carry on that tradition. We make a commitment to our readers to serve as a public watchdog over government, business, and other powerful entities in West Virginia society, to ensure that the public interest is protected.
U.S. Chemical Safety Board members (left to right) Manny Ehrlich and Kristen Kulinowski, board Chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland, general counsel Kara Wenze, and board member Rick Engler, huddle during a break at last nights public meeting on Freedom Industries. Photo by Ken Ward Jr.
It’s just fascinating that one of the first things into my email inbox this morning was a press release from Sen. Barbara Boxer, the retiring California Democrat who is ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works:
Senator Barbara Boxer … is calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strengthen its proposed rule to reduce the risks and enhance security at the nation’s hazardous chemical facilities.
In 2013, President Obama issued an Executive Order directing federal agencies to modernize agency policies, regulations, and standards to improve chemical facility safety. The order followed a series of chemical disasters, including the massive chemical explosion in West, Texas, which resulted in fatalities, hundreds of injuries, and damage to homes, businesses, and the adjacent rail line. Senator Boxer is urging EPA to strengthen its proposed rule to ensure that communities nationwide are protected from catastrophic chemical disasters.
EPA should do more to prevent disasters, including requiring the implementation of Inherently Safer Technology (IST). EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recognized in a 2015 voluntary Chemical Safety Alert that “The first choice for managing chemical hazards and risks is the use of Inherently Safer Technology (IST).” The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, and a diverse coalition of over 100 national and local environmental justice, labor, security, and environmental groups have also called for implementation of IST where feasible.
Wait — Inherently safer technology? The U.S. Chemical Safety Board? Require not just an analysis of inherently safer design, but also implementation? Have EPA write a rule doing that?
Just last night, those of us here in the Kanawha Valley watched those ideas kind of evaporate, at least as far as their being considered in the context of what happened in January 2014 at the Freedom Industries facility on the Elk River, just upstream from our drinking water supply — and in the context of any sort of national rule to compel other chemical tank owners and water companies to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen in their community.
It’s true that the board report includes a list of “lessons learned” that the CSB hopes an industry association will pass on to its members, and that one water company will implement at all of its operations. But the lack of a recommendation that the U.S. EPA actually require any sort of reforms as part of a national regulation was so conspicuously absent from the CSB report that even West Virginia American Water Company was wondering what was going on.
1 — How did the stuff get out of the tank — While the CSB had discussed several times before (see here and here) its theory for what happened, this draft report offers more details and makes a more compelling argument that the leak from Tank 396 was caused by what’s called “pitting corrosion” that created two holes (approximately 0.75 and 0.4 inches in diameter). The draft report explains:
Corrosion is an electrochemical reaction between a metal alloy and its environment, and can lead to degradation of structures. It can attack materials uniformly, degrading metals at an even rate across the surface, known as general corrosion. However, pitting corrosion is confined to a point or small area that takes the form of cavities, some of which can perforate through the thickness of the metal. Pitting corrosion can be difficult to detect because it is highly localized and the rate at which the depth of the pit increases is often greater than the width.
In this instance:
CSB retained a tank expert to conduct a corrosion rate analysis based on the observed pitting and the data available during the incident investigation. Although it was recognized that the corrosion rates were variable and unknown, the best reasonable assumption at the time of the study was that the corrosion rate was constant over the life of tank 396 at 12.3 mils per year (mpy, or thousandths of an inch per year, a common designation for corrosion rate) with the corrosion rate bounded between 10 and 15 mpy.
2 — How long did the spill last — While the CSB team says it’s impossible to know the exact mechanism for the leak from the tank or how long the leak was going on, their draft report does offer and estimate — 24 hours — in this section, which describes one of the ways that those two small holes in the tank might have ended up leaking:
A frost heaving effect, caused by extremely low temperatures, may have contributed to the sudden release of MCHM from the bottom of tank 396. The severe cold weather in early January 2014, referred to as a “polar vortex,” brought bitterly cold temperatures to the Midwest, South and much of the eastern and northeastern United States. The Charleston area set a new minimum temperature record of -3°F just 2 days before leak discovery.
Frost heaving occurs when the freezing of water-saturated soil causes the deformation and upward thrust of the ground surface. When water freezes, it expands. This expansion is often referred to as frost jacking or frost heaving. Freezing weather prevalent at that time of year caused the frost heaving of the soil underneath the tank, which possibly led to the flexure or movement of the tank bottom in the vicinity of the holes. The movement provided enough bending on the bottom plates to possibly dislodge the PVA material or other debris blocking flow through the bottom holes.
Once the material became dislodged, the pressure from the filled MCHM tank may have enabled the sudden gushing flow of liquid from the tank bottom, which continued at a maximum flow rate of about 11.5 gallons per minute (GPM). Approximately 10,000 gallons of MCHM had leaked from tank 396 prior to leak discovery. Based on a CSB commissioned calculation of the flow rate, a sudden tank leak would have resulted in a flow loss of 1 inch per 17 minutes. At this rate, the tank contents would have leaked through the tank holes and into the ground for approximately 24 hours (1 day) before the leak was detected.
CSB concluded that tank 396 failed due to corrosion, which ultimately resulted from poor tank maintenance and inspections not in accordance with acceptable industry standards and best practices. Despite the freezing weather condition, which may have played a role in initiating the tank leak, the lack of rigorous tank inspections by ERT and Freedom directly contributed to the MCHM leak.
Yes, it’s been a while since we heard from the CSB about Freedom. And yes, the CSB team had previously said it hoped to have this report to us a long time ago – like somewhere around the first anniversary of the spill. But a lot has happened at the CSB since then, including the guy who was chairman of the board when this all started — Rafael Moure-Eraso — getting fired by President Obama (read more about all of that here, here and here if you need to catch up).
So why should anyone care about the CSB report? And what should concerned citizens be watching for? We should count on the CSB for discussion of the big underlying issues — because that’s really a key part of the board’s role in these kind of incidents. They can connect the dots in ways that other agencies with specific enforcement authorities simply can’t (or don’t).
We’ve already heard from the CSB at least twice about Freedom, in congressional testimony and then a preliminary public meeting (see here for a transcript of that) that outlined some early specific findings about the cause of the chemical tank leak. But one thing board investigators said they planned to try to answer that I know local residents would like to know is exactly how long that MCHM tank had been leaking. The CSB had said it planned some modeling that might get to the bottom of that, and mapping that would show the exact path taken from the tank into the river by the chemical.
But more importantly, the board made some specific promises about the issues it planned to go into in more detail in its Freedom investigation. Here’s my effort at summarizing those issues:
Chemical tank safety regulations: During two different congressional hearings (see here and here), the CSB expressed concerns that the Freedom incident exposed a potentially large and dangerous loophole in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chemical spill regulations. The problem was that EPA rules governed petroleum tanks, but not other chemicals.
Emergency response: There were obviously a lot of problems with the response to the Freedom spill. The Tomblin administration did a remarkably transparent job of talking about some of this in its after-action report. But there’s much more than could be addressed, and the CSB indicated — at least early on and under different leadership — that it planned to do just that. And the CSB has indicated its great concern about emergency response, adding emergency planning and response to its “most wanted list” of reforms.
For example, the CSB has said that it viewed efforts by federal and state officials to explain the potential health effects of MCHM exposure as “obscure” and “not widely communicated.” So what sort of recommendations will the board make about improving emergency communications in these kinds of incidents? The board has also noted that there was limited toxicological information available about MCHM at the time of the spill, and that the “Safety Data Sheets” that emergency responders relied on were not helpful. Of course, Congress has passed a reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, but will the board simply drop the issue — or will the CSB provide some more concrete recommendations for how response to these incidents can be improved in the real world? Will the board address, also for example, questions raised in the pending spill litigation about Eastman’s safety disclosures on MCHM? What about the issues regarding West Virginia American Water’s emergency response that have been raised in the PSC investigation?
More broadly, will the CSB offer any guidance to agencies like the U.S. EPA on how to improve the rules under federal right-to-know and emergency response laws so that the response to future such incidents is handled more smoothly?
Disaster prevention: Perhaps it should go without saying, but this is the most important area for the CSB to address. And it is a mix of issues that are specific to Freedom and the Kanawha Valley and more broad and systematic.
Likewise, the CSB has expressed interest in important questions about the proximity of West Virginia America’s regional drinking water intake to the Freedom chemical storage facility . Which was there first? Was the intake moved from a better location upstream and if so why? The board has said it wants to look carefully as how potentially dangerous chemical facilities end up near homes and other businesses.
Here’s what then-CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso previously said about this:
For chemical storage tanks like this, the first question that should always be asked is, do they need to be near the water supply for some reason? Unfortunately in the case of Freedom Industries, the answer would have been “no.” The facility was simply a truck terminal, and its position alongside the Elk River just upstream of the water intake had tragic consequences. The facility just did not need to be where it was. And although relocating it would have had some costs, those pale beside the costs that hundreds of thousands of West Virginia residents and businesses are now paying for this disaster. Another form of inherent safety, or safety in design, is using corrosion-resistant materials for tank construction. That is something we will need to explore further, as we determine the failure mode for this particular tank.
It will be fascinating to see how the board’s final report deals with all of this. And also with the closely related issue of source-water protection, and how well EPA and the states have implemented and enforced those provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Has the board followed up on the state of those issues, and will investigators recommend any steps to improve in that area?
The CSB’s public meeting is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at the Four Points by Sheraton over on Kanawha Boulevard. The board is having a press conference earlier in the day, and we’ll have a report on that posted online prior to the public meeting, to assist residents in being able to provide public comments to the agency.
Here’s that map that shows what the CSB has done before in West Virginia:
One person was killed as a major explosion ripped through the Airgas facility next to the Ascend Performance Materials plant on Old Chemstrand Road in Cantonment just after noon Sunday. There were no other injuries or fatalities.
About 12:15 p.m., multiple agencies from across Escambia County responded to the Airgas facility. First responders reported a major explosion with an area of significant structural collapse. The area was described a “mini-war zone”.
The gas that exploded was nitrous oxide, some of which was released into the atmosphere but did not pose any threat to the public. There were no gasses or chemicals released outside the industrial facility. There were no evacuations or shelter in place orders issued for residents living near the plant.
Not so long ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board took a pass on investigating a significant incident — one that injured 11 workers — at the Axiall Corp. chemical plant in northern West Virginia, site of Saturday’s huge chlorine leak. The CSB refused to look into the incident, despite it being just one in a recent string of problems at the facility (see here and here).
So on Saturday, I asked if the CSB was going to deploy to Natrium and look into this chlorine leak. Two days later, the board still hasn’t decided — and really didn’t provide much of an official response to my query.
This morning I tweeted about the CSB’s relative silence on the matter:
48 hours after Axiall chlorine leak in WV injured 9 people -- and still no word on whether @chemsafetyboard is considering deploying.
As residents of Marshall and Wetzel counties fled or took shelter to protect themselves from a chlorine cloud that spewed into the air Saturday from the Axiall Corp. chemical plant at Natrium, it was impossible not to remember a long-ago and never-implemented recommendation from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that West Virginia officials do more to try to ensure public safety from such incidents.
It was eight years ago Sunday that the fatal explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant out in Institute prompted the CSB investigation that led to this recommendation to the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Environmental Protection:
Work with the Director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to ensure the successful planning, fee collection, and implementation of the Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program as described in Recommendation 2008-08-WV-R6, above, including the provision of services to all eligible facilities in the State.
That Recommendation 2008-08-WV-6 part refers to this recommendation to the local health department:
Establish a Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program to enhance the prevention of accidental releases of highly hazardous chemicals, and optimize responses in the event of their occurrence. In establishing the program, study and evaluate the possible applicability of the experience of similar programs in the country.
Readers may recall that state officials basically ignored this recommendation for a couple of years, until that troublesome chemical spill over on the Elk River that contaminated drinking water supplies for hundreds of thousands of residents. When that happened, we published this story in the Gazette:
Three years ago this month, a team of federal experts urged the state of West Virginia to help the Kanawha Valley create a new program to prevent hazardous chemical accidents.The U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended the step after its extensive investigation of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute. Since then, the proposal has gone nowhere.
When lawmakers, under pressure following the Freedom Industries spill, passed legislation responding to the incident, they tucked this onto the mandate for a new Public Water System Supply Study Commission:
A review and consideration of the recommendations of the U. S. Chemical Safety and Hazard and Investigation Board after its investigation of the Bayer CropScience incident of 2008.
There was an interesting — and potentially important — advertisement in today’s Gazette-Mail from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Here’s what it said:
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released the EE/CA presenting the Preferred Alternative for addressing dioxin contaminated sediment in the Kanawha River between RM 31.1 (Winfield Locks and Dam) and RM 45.5 (confluence of the Coal River).
The Preferred Alternative for the Site is identified in the EE/CA as Alternative 4 – limited armored capping of sediment, monitored natural recovery, and institutional controls.
Here’s what the ad looks like:
If you want more information, be careful, because the link listed in the ad will try to download a more than 300 MB .pdf file from EPA’s website. You might find it a bit easier to read the nearly 1,500-page report from this version that I uploaded to Document Cloud.
There was a pretty good crowd — as these things go — at last night’s West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection public hearing on water quality standards. As you can read right here in our story on the hearing, no one spoke in favor of WVDEP’s proposals to make it easier to remove drinking water protections for streams and to allow more cancer-causing chemicals to be discharged into state rivers and streams.
Among those who encouraged the public to attend and speak out against the DEP rule changes were representatives of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which submitted these written comments to agency officials.
At the hearing, Rivers Coalition representatives were also passing out copies of a new report called, “We are bodies of water: The Importance of safe drinking water for protecting women’s and children’s health.” The report focuses on explaining the importance of the longstanding state policy of protecting all rivers and streams as sources and potential sources of drinking water — so-called Category A — which is something that the DEP rule changes would make it easier for industry lobbyists to have changed.
We ran a story on the front page of Sunday’s print edition that described a major change in West Virginia’s water quality standards that’s been proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Here’s the way we started the story:
Department of Environmental Protection officials are proposing water quality rule changes that would allow more cancer-causing chemicals to be discharged into West Virginia rivers and streams and could make it somewhat easier for industry to have drinking water protections removed for some state waterways.
Agency officials say the changes are DEP’s response to a legislative mandate to re-examine how West Virginia decides which state streams will be designated as potential drinking water sources and to make the stream-flow figures used for carcinogen limits more closely align with long-term exposure risks and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommendations.
But environmental groups are opposing the DEP proposals, one of which was rejected after being dubbed the “Cancer Creek” bill when it was the subject of a heated legislative battle more than two decades ago.
That proposal, which mirrors one frequently lobbied for by state industry groups, would change the stream flows used in pollution limit calculations from one using low-flow conditions to one using average flow — a move that agency officials acknowledge allows greater levels of cancer-causing chemicals.
As the story explains, the WVDEP proposal would calculate water pollution limits for cancer-causing chemicals based on an average flow figure — called the “harmonic mean” — rather than the state’s current practice of using a low-flow figure. The state currently uses a flow referred to as “7Q10,” which is the lowest seven-day consecutive flow that occurs at least once every 10 years.
You can read the whole story online here, but if you’re wondering what the real impact of the proposal would be, it’s hard to tell, at least from what WVDEP officials are saying at this point:
One thing that DEP officials acknowledge is that the switch to harmonic mean would result in permit limits that allow more cancer-causing chemicals to be discharged into West Virginia’s streams. How much more? Of what chemicals and in what rivers or streams?
DEP officials say they don’t know. A statewide review to answer those kinds of questions hasn’t been done.
Digging through public comments and agency documents about one of the last times that the state considered a switch to harmonic mean, though, might help provide some context for the proposal’s impact.
It’s the time of year when public hearings are held on rule changes being proposed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
There’s a complete list of their proposals and hearing times/dates online here. But it seems important to highlight for now one specific hearing that’s coming up on Monday evening. It concerns proposed changes to the DEP Division of Air Quality’s rules for public notices for certain applications for air pollution permits.
You can read the proposal for yourself here. I’ve highlighted the portions about public notices.
In short, the proposal appears to be removing requirements that certain permit applications, when they go through public comment periods, include publication of a legal notice about the application and the comment period in local newspapers. Instead, these notices would simply be posted on the WVDEP website.
One issue with this — and we’ll see if this receives any significant public comments — is that a notice in the local newspaper could be seen by anybody who reads that paper for their local news or obituaries or other information. To see notices on the WVDEP webpage, citizens would have to make it a point to visit that page — or if the agency also does email notices, sign up to receive those.
Of course, the idea behind publishing notices in the first place in newspapers “in general circulation” in the affected area is so that the general public — not just a specialized group that follows these issues — gets notice and have an opportunity for input.
The public hearing on this proposal, and on other air quality rule changes, is at 6 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 1, at the WVDEP office at 601 57th Street S.E., in Kanawha City.