Sustained Outrage

New study warns of MCHM toxicity

Coal Water Pollution

There’s a new study out this week that residents of the Kanawha Valley and surrounding region will want to know about.  It was published online Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology and is called Toxicity Assessment of 4-Methyl-1-cyclohexanemethanol and Its Metabolites in Response to a Recent Chemical Spill in West Virginia, USA.

Here’s the abstract:

The large-scale chemical spill on January 9, 2014 from coal processing and cleaning storage tanks of Freedom Industries in Charleston affected the drinking water supply to 300,000 people in Charleston, West Virginia metropolitan, while the short-term and long-term health impacts remain largely unknown and need to be assessed and monitored. There is a lack of publically available toxicological information for the main contaminant 4-methyl-1-cyclohexanemethanol (4-MCHM). Particularly, little is known about 4-MCHM metabolites and their toxicity. This study reports timely and original results of the mechanistic toxicity assessment of 4-MCHM and its metabolites via a newly developed quantitative toxicogenomics approach, employing proteomics analysis in yeast cells and transcriptional analysis in human cells. These results suggested that, although 4-MCHM is considered only moderately toxic based on the previous limited acute toxicity evaluation, 4-MCHM metabolites were likely more toxic than 4-MCHM in both yeast and human cells, with different toxicity profiles and potential mechanisms. In the yeast library, 4-MCHM mainly induced chemical stress related to transmembrane transport and transporter activity, while 4-MCHM metabolites of S9 mainly induced oxidative stress related to antioxidant activity and oxidoreductase activity. With human A549 cells, 4-MCHM mainly induced DNA damage-related biomarkers, which indicates that 4-MCHM is related to genotoxicity due to its DNA damage effect on human cells and therefore warrants further chronic carcinogenesis evaluation.

And here’s the conclusion:

… This study revealed different toxicity and potential mechanisms of 4-MCHM and its metabolites by S9 in yeast and human cells (A549). These results suggested that, although 4-MCHM is considered only moderately toxic based on previous limited acute toxicity evaluation, its metabolites may be more toxic than 4-MCHM and are more relevant to human exposure. Our study at the molecular level revealed some subcytotoxic molecular mechanisms such as DNA damage potential, which indicates that 4-MCHM is related to carcinogenesis and reproductive toxicity due to its DNA damage effect on human cells. Our results suggested that long-term medical monitoring should be considered for the population. It may also provide insights into potential long-term aquatic toxicity issues. The toxicogenomics-based molecular toxicity screening assay employed in this study provides timely information regarding the underlying mechanisms of toxic action of 4-MCHM and its metabolites, especially related to low-dose and chronic exposures, which makes it a useful tool for public health protection and health monitoring needs.

Mark Welch at Freedom April 2015

Freedom Industries Chief Restructuring Officer Mark Welch is shown during an early April tour of the site. Photo by Ken Ward Jr.

Earlier this week, the state Department of Environmental Protection blasted Freedom Industries, harshly criticizing the company’s current leadership — Chief Restructuring Officer Mark Welch and attorney Mark Freedlander — for their handling of the Freedom bankruptcy and company proposals for cleaning up the site of the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill.

This morning, Welch responded with this new court filing:

Welch has some strong words back at the DEP regarding the agency’s comments about Freedom’s efforts to come up with a viable cleanup plan under the agency’s Voluntary Remediation Program:

Saying “NO” to proposals made by a VRP participant under the VRP is easy. It allows for plausible deniability and blame if the clean-up project were not to be successfully completed by the VRP participant.

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Good news: The latest “State of the Air” report


There’s some good news for Kanawha Valley residents in the American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” annual report:

The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2015” report released today finds the 3-state, 12-county Charleston-Huntington-Ashland, WV-OH-KY metropolitan area improved to its best-ever performance for two of the three measures of air pollution the report tracks.  Compared with last year’s report, its ranking among metro areas nationwide also improved in those two categories: fine particle pollution measured on a short-term (daily) and long-term (year-round) basis.

According to the 2015 report, based on data for the three-year period of 2011-2013, all monitored counties in the Charleston-Huntington-Ashland metro area earned “A” grades for posting zero days of unhealthy levels of particle pollution, placing the metro area onto the American Lung Association’s “Cleanest Cities” list for this pollutant.

The metro area’s rank for this measure improved slightly from 96th to 98th worst in the nation.  In addition to Cabell County, WV, which was promoted to its first “A” after three straight years of “B’s,” Kanawha County, WV, Boyd County, KY, and Lawrence and Scioto Counties, OH, all repeated last year’s “A” grades.

Citizens urge caution on Freedom Industries cleanup


Mark Welch, chief restructuring officer of Freedom Industries (center), briefs Department of Environmental Protection officials on the site during an inspection on April 3. Photo by Ken Ward Jr.

If you read the reports that Freedom Industries’ Chief Restructuring Officer Mark Welch files with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson, you would think that the remediation of the site of the January 2014 Elk River chemical spill is about wrapped up. But to hear the state Department of Environmental Protection tell the story, that’s far from true — DEP says it’s still waiting to see test results on soil and groundwater at the site, and that there’s a long road yet before the project completes work under the state’s “voluntary” remediation program.

We detailed the latest twist in this somewhat confusing story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail:

Freedom Industries officials are pressing West Virginia regulators for speedy approval of the company’s plan to complete a voluntary cleanup of the site of the January 2014 chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents in the Kanawha Valley and surrounding communities.

… Welch told Pearson in his new report that the company had submitted a work plan earlier last week and that Freedom could complete the remediation contemplated within two weeks. Welch said the DEP had agreed to “expeditiously review and respond to the work plan.”

Welch said Freedom has dug up 600 cubic yards of contaminated soil and would, under its proposed work plan, dig up another 200 cubic yards of soil from areas where MCHM was stored or handled. He said the company would fill in with clean soil a water-runoff collection trench where sampling has continued to pick up the presence of MCHM. A new sediment-control pond would be built along the Elk River that could be used, at least temporarily, for continued sampling.

Completion of this work, Welch told the court, would mean “there is no risk of further MCHM leaching into the Elk River.”

This morning, the citizen group People Concerned about Chemical Safety, responded to that story, with a press release that urged DEP to “prevent cutting corners” on the Freedom cleanup project:

Recent tests, however, performed by U.S. Geological Survey, Virginia Tech and University of Memphis leave more questions on the toxicity of the spilled material.

Past studies assume the spilled material to have the same fate properties regardless of temperature. However, a recent report from Virginia Tech and University of Memphis indicates differing fate properties proving the previous hypothesis false. This indicates the potential for exposure concentrations to vary

The U.S. Geological Survey recently determined that a form of methyl 4-methylcyclohexanecarboxylate (or MMCHC), was identified as another component of the spilled material and that it “likely contributed to the tap water odor complaints of Charleston residents.” No toxicological data is available for this chemical and the CDC has never established a screening level for this chemical.

What is clear from these recent findings is that the data does not yet exist to properly determine the risk at the Freedom cleanup site. In light of these findings, PCACS is urging DEP to ensure additional tests are performed to properly characterize site risk.

Among other things, People Concerned noted that DEP could seek to have money from criminal restitution payments from Freedom executives — four of whom have pleaded guilty in federal court — set aside for help with the site cleanup. Also, the group noted that DEP is accepting public comments on the Freedom cleanup via email at



After action: Learning from W.Va.’s water crisis

Coal Water Pollution

In a lot of ways, the “After Action Review” made public last week by the Tomblin administration was an amazing document.  Click here to read the whole thing or here to download the main body summary of the findings.

Writing in our news story about the report, I called it the state’s “most frank assessment” to date of government’s performance in responding to the Freedom Industries chemical leak and the water crisis that followed. Among the admissions:

— The state “struggled at times” to effectively communicate information to the public through the news media. News conferences occurred with little notice, and messages were “lost amid confusing or ambiguous statements.” The report noted that “scientific information ought to be conveyed in an easily understandable manner.”

Earl Ray Tomblin— Government officials “should have visited individuals and businesses in the affected area to help restore calm and exhibit empathy.”

— Recalling an industry-only “stakeholders” meeting that was exposed by The Charleston Gazette, the report said that, “In preparing the initial draft of the Aboveground Storage Tank Act, state officials should have solicited feedback from all affected parties, including environmentalists, instead of only vetting proposals with business and industry representatives.”

Of course, some of these things are about communications and public relations, and others are about process.  In some other ways, the report was not quite as honest or at least it appeared to be still trying to put the best possible spin on this. For example, as I wrote in our news story:

… The report said that “with the abundance of chemical and manufacturing facilities in the Kanawha Valley,” many of them near “critical waterways,” a more efficient way of managing required disclosure forms about toxic chemical inventories at those operations should be implemented.

The report asserts that, while the state had established a “comprehensive statutory framework” in 1984 to regulate underground chemical storage tanks, aboveground tanks were not regulated “under an applicable federal or state permit” and tanks like the MCHM tanks at Freedom Industries “escaped government oversight.”

The report said that the new storage tank law “will help address these shortcomings, will increase public safety significantly, and will help protect the environment.”

The truth is, state and local officials were given information that showed Freedom was storing these chemicals just upstream from the region’s drinking water intake. But nobody — including members of the local media, like me — bothered to look at or use this information in any meaningful way (see here and here). So while it’s certainly true that officials need “a more efficient way of managing” chemical inventory disclosures, it’s also quite an understatement about the failure to use available tools to prevent or respond to a disaster.

And the truth is that the Freedom site wasn’t “not regulated”, but — as DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has explained previously — they were “underregulated.”  And in fact, federal authorities, in charging Freedom officials with Clean Water Act crimes, have said that the company’s failure to comply with a DEP-issued permit was a “proximate cause” of the MCHM spill. It was DEP’s job to enforce that permit, to make sure Freedom complied.

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Remembering the Bhopal Disaster

India Bhopal

In this Dec. 5, 1984 file photo, two men carry children blinded by the Union Carbide chemical pesticide leak to a hospital in Bhopal, India.  (AP Photo/Sondeep Shankar, File)

Thirty years ago tonight, a leak of methyl isocyanate at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India.

As many Kanawha Valley residents know well, the Bhopal plant was a sister facility to the Institute, W.Va., Carbide plant that is now owned by Bayer CropScience. And just months after Bhopal, a Carbide leak in Institute sent 135 people to the hospital in an event that gave momentum to passage by Congress of the landmark chemical right-to-know and emergency planning law.

For many years, local residents lived in fear of a Bhopal-type disaster here. They pointed to the Institute   plant’s huge stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the deadly chemical that leaked at Bhopal.  Pressure for Bayer to get rid of the MIC stockpile increased dramatically following an explosion and fire that killed two workers in August 2008. The Institute plant  came under new scrutiny after that, with a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report that provided the most telling look to date about the dangers the facility presented. Then in March 2011, Bayer announced its landmark decision to never restart its MIC unit in Institute.

Coal Water PollutionBut other events remind us of the dangers that lurk just beneath the surface without proper regulation, enforcement and attention to safety. Locally, last January’s chemical spill by Freedom Industries was a case study in what can happen without prior planning or adequate government oversight (see here, here,here and here). State lawmakers responded by passing a very strong bill to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks and local drinking water systems, but the new Republican-controlled Legislature appears poised to dismantle that bill in the upcoming 2015 session, based largely on unfounded criticisms of the bill’s potential costs (see here and here).

Despite continued serious chemical plant accidents around the nation, the Obama administration’s response and its proposed reforms have been disappointing to safety advocates.  Just last week, in its latest regulatory agenda, Obama’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration downgraded its efforts to write a new safety standard for combustible dust to a long-term action item, meaning it’s unlikely any rule will see the light of day during this administration. OSHA has delayed this rule for many years, and as we’ve written before, combustible accidents continue to claim the lives of workers, including three in a December 2010 explosion and fire in Hancock County, W.Va.

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Industry starts push for ‘voluntary’ safety measures


Photo by Tom Hindman, Charleston Daily Mail, via Associated Press

It was interesting this week to start seeing some media coverage of the chemical industry’s efforts to begin pushing its voluntary “Responsible Care” program, timed oddly right as a new West Virginia commission is to take up, among other things, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommendation for a new local chemical accident prevention program.

For example, WCHS-TV did a story on a chemical industry meeting in which on-air personality Kennie Bass served on a panel that discussed the fallout from the January chemical spill at Freedom Industries:

The West Virginia Manufacturers Association and three national chemical industry trade groups teamed up to present the forum, which focused on government and media response to the freedom industries water disaster.

The panelists included West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Director Randy Huffman, Kanawha County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Dale Petry and Eyewitness News Reporter Kennie Bass, representing media who covered the water crisis.

Topics included how the local and state first responders dealt with the water shortage, how information was gathered and reported by journalists and what we have learned in case a similar disaster happens.

Dean Cordle, president and CEO of AC & S incorporated said it is part of the industries “responsible care.”

“The purpose of today’s event is to bring together the community leaders and industry and talk about safe practices that are currently being employed in the chemical industry,” Cordle said. “And to broaden our program called responsible care to include some of those smaller companies that can benefit from practices that we employ.”

I had heard of this event and checked in last week, but was told by the American Chemistry Council, one of the co-sponsors, that it was not open to the media.

Interestingly enough, Dean Cordle of AC&S Inc. showed up at a meeting of the Daily Mail’s editorial board that produced this story:

Chemical industry executives advocated for industry-driven safety practices during a workshop hosted by the West Virginia Manufacturing Association on Monday.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD) and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ Center for Chemical Process Safety joined state agencies and community leaders in Charleston for a day of discussion and workshops aimed at encouraging companies to improve safety practices by joining industry safety cooperatives.

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freedom aerial

Commercial Photography Services of West Virginia

The pressure continues to build on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to call a special session so West Virginia can walk back the landmark chemical tank safety and public drinking water law that miraculously made its way through the Legislature in the wake of January’s Freedom Industries spill and the Kanawha Valley water crisis that followed.

Yesterday, Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Tim Miley issued a joint statement urging Gov. Tomblin to call that special session so they can roll back the deadline for chemical tank owners to determine if their tanks are safe and report that information to the state Department of Environmental Protection.  Here’s what they had to say in that joint release:

miley_timothykessler_jeffreyWe urge Governor Tomblin to call a brief special session during the upcoming September interim meetings to modify the date of implementation for the inspection and certification of the Above Ground Storage Tank Act (SB373). Doing so during the interim meetings will not incur any additional cost to the taxpayers.

While we are extremely proud of the comprehensive regulatory legislation produced earlier this year to protect drinking water for our state citizens, it has become apparent that the Jan. 1, 2015 deadline for these inspections is unattainable. Extending that deadline will allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to put in place, with public input, agency rules to fairly and effectively govern the inspection and certification process.

Any continued delay in taking action on this matter only causes uncertainty within affected industries and the families that rely on them for employment.

Meanwhile, the DEP will move forward with creating an inventory and conducting a risk assessment of above ground storage tanks statewide.

The usual suspects among our state’s media outlets are right on top of this. Hoppy Kercheval is all over this, and the MetroNews coverage sticks pretty close to his talking points:

As of now, as many as 40,000 tanks in West Virginia must be registered with the state by Oct. 1 and certified inspections of those tanks have to be completed by Jan. 1.  The state Department of Environmental Protection has not yet finalized the inspection protocols and, DEP officials have said, it could be December before those guidelines are available.

After appearing at times to actually care about drinking water protections, the Daily Mail editorial page is back to its old self, and repeating the same misinformation West Virginians are getting from MetroNews:

But the biggest issue is the uncertainty facing storage tank operators as the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency charged with enforcing the law, has yet to define the inspection parameters for storage tanks. Once it does, operators of the estimated 40,000 storage tanks affected by the law are unlikely to have time to complete their inspections by the Jan. 1 deadline.

It’s simply false to say that DEP has not yet issued “inspection protocols” or defined “the inspection parameters.” Officials at DEP, working very hard under tough deadlines and constant pressure from industry, published guidance for tank owners spelling out what should be examined in these inspections. It’s right here on the agency’s website. There’s a checklist for what the inspections should include and there are forms (see here and here) to use in certifying to DEP that you’ve done these inspections and your tanks are safe.

And DEP was very, very clear about how this is going to work for the initial inspections due Jan. 1 and for future annual inspections:

For the certification due on or before January 1, 2015, compliance with a nationally recognized tank standard such API or STI following the attached checklist shall be deemed compliance with the requirements. Subsequent Annual Certifications will be required to comply fully with legislative rules promulgated by the Secretary.

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There’s a new report out today from the good folks at Downstream Strategies in which they try to inventory the greenhouse gas emissions of one West Virginia city: Morgantown.  Here’s the bottom line, from their press release:

Morgantown emitted 805,694 metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2012—most of which come from coal-fired power plants that supply electricity to the city’s homes and businesses and from burning gas and diesel fuel in residents’ cars and trucks.

The report, a year in the making, was funded by the Appalachian Stewardship Foundation and produced in partnership with the city of Morgantown and the Morgantown Municipal Green Team. It looked at five different emissions-generating activities, including use of electricity and on-road passenger and freight travel, as well as the use of fuel in residential and commercial stationary combustion equipment, use of energy in potable water and wastewater treatment and distribution, and generation of solid waste.

Jeff Simcoe, energy program project manager at Downstream Strategies, said:

As far as we know, this GHG inventory project represents the first of its kind within the state of West Virginia. A community-focused GHG inventory presents a broader picture of GHG operations than one focused just on government operations and provides a baseline against which the success of future programs and policies can be measured.

Not surprisingly, the report found:

… The magnitude of emissions generated from the Morgantown Energy Associates power plant, as compared to total activity-based emission results, is significant … Source-based emissions from the Morgantown Energy Associates power plant are approximately three-quarters of total activity-based emissions calculated in this report … 

.. For source-based emissions, the Morgantown Energy Associates power plant should be the focus of efforts to reduce GHG emissions within the city limits. Although the local community and government do not directly control operations at the power plant, options can be explored that could influence electricity production and emission levels. In June 2014, USEPA proposed its Clean Power Plan rule, which requires GHG emission reductions from existing coal-fired power plants. This rule identifies four options: (1) heat rate improvements at individual power plants; (2) substituting generation from less carbon-intensive power plants such as natural gas units; (3) substituting generation from low- or zero-carbon generation such as solar, wind, or nuclear; and (4) implementing demand-side energy efficiency

But the report goes on to say:

This inventory has identified the two most important opportunities for GHG reductions in the Morgantown community: electricity use in the built environment and transportation. Easy actions might include turning off lights when not needed, changing to light bulbs that use less electricity, or driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.

This GHG inventory is important because it identifies GHG reduction opportunities and contains a large amount of information that can be leveraged by the Morgantown community to develop policies and programs to reduce GHG emissions. We recommend that the information contained within this report be referenced as the community and policy makers consider options. Besides energy conservation benefits that could be achieved by targeting sectors that consume large amounts of energy, non-energy benefits could also be realized through the same programs and policies. These additional, non-energy benefits include improved human health through reductions in air pollution as well as community economic benefits because Morgantown would be a more attractive place to live.

WVTAP pulls some punches in review of CDC

freedom aerial

Commercial Photography Services of West Virginia

It’s probably fair to say that West Virginians who have become distrustful of the state and federal government’s handling of the continuing water crisis have been hopeful and optimistic about the work being conducted by the team at the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project.

One of the WVTAP leaders, University of South Alabama environmental engineer Andrew Whelton, built up a lot of credibility when he and some of his students drove to Charleston in January on their own dime to test home water supplies and help people properly flush their plumbing systems.  Dr. Whelton reached out to and welcomed input from various citizen groups, and most of his public comments have shown respect for residents — and a willingness to clearly define the unknowns in this situation, and not try to sugarcoat those unknowns just to quell public outrage.

The release a week ago of WVTAP’s results from its pilot home water testing effort was a groundbreaking example of how public pressure can force public officials — in this case Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin — to do things they really don’t want to do  — in this case test the water residents were actually being exposed to, rather than just sample at the water plant and neighborhood hydrants. The question now, of course, is whether Gov. Tomblin will cough up the money needed for a larger study that could actually characterize the levels of MCHM that are still in our region’s drinking water.

But this week’s release of a preliminary report from the WVTAP Health Effects Panel didn’t go nearly as well — and raises some significant questions about the way this part of the WVTAP effort is being handled.

When we did our print story about the panel’s public meeting on Monday, we described the preliminary report as saying that the 1.0 part per million screening level set back in January by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control was “too weak.”

But when I look back at that now, it’s more clear to me that while the report’s results made clear the CDC figure was way off — the CDC figure is 1,000 parts per billion, and WVTAP’s is 120 ppb —  the WVTAP preliminary report never really came out and said so. In fact, whoever is writing WVTAP’s press releases went to great efforts to make it look like the panel was what the CDC did was just fine. For example, the press release opined:

The panel concluded that the CDC used traditional methods and reasonable assumptions to develop their screening levels.

It was a statement like that which allowed West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling to say in her own press release that the WVTAP work was “clearly an affirmation that our water is safe and the CDC’s calculation at the time of the incident was appropriate.”

The problem with the WVTAP press release and Secretary Bowling’s comment is that they simply aren’t supported by the facts as they were laid out by the WVTAP Health Effects Panel. For one thing, the WVTAP panel decided that the appropriate assumption was that the most exposed population was formula-fed infants, not an older child weighing 10 kilograms. This is a big difference. And it’s an assumption that the CDC initially made that the WVTAP team decided was inappropriate.

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