The first clue I had I’d missed a potentially important story was the Facebook status update from Charleston City Councilwoman and water safety advocate Karan Ireland:
“Public hearing on WVAW’s SWPP. Where y’at?”
It all become more clear when Councilwoman Ireland posted this follow-up status:
There weren’t any journalists at tonight’s public hearing on West Virginia American Water’s SWPP. (And, only a handful of the “public”.)
I’m curious to know why there was no coverage.
While not exactly the second coming, this meeting was fairly important to readers in the Kanawha Valley. The whole reason that water utilities are being made to write plans for protecting their source water supplies is the Freedom Industries chemical spill, and the effects it had on the state’s largest drinking water facility, serving something like 300,000 people in Charleston and surrounding communities. The hearing offered a chance for local residents to comment on West Virginia American Water’s plan, and perhaps mention things like the need for a secondary, backup water source.
Folks like Councilwoman Ireland were understandably concerned that there wasn’t much turnout, and that perhaps the lack of media coverage prior to the event played a role in that — and that the lack of media attendance of the hearing itself wasn’t such a great thing either.
Why was there no coverage? Well, I can only speak for the Gazette-Mail, but the answer is I didn’t know the hearing was taking place.
I should have. Public notice of the meeting — held last night in South Charleston — was right there on the Secretary of State’s website. The notice was submitted to the Secretary of State on Aug. 23, and went on the website that very day, officials there tell me. The Department of Health and Human Resources and its Bureau for Public Health have a list of all the public hearing dates on its website here.
So how did I miss it? Well — I’m ashamed to say — I was waiting for the press release.
Over the weekend, we had another story in the Gazette-Mail outlining some of the findings of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s report on the Freedom Industries chemical spill and the ensuing regional drinking water crisis.
That story made a brief mention of some comments from Andrew Whelton, the Purdue University engineer who led the Tomblin administratin’s WVTAP team, investigating the impacts of the spill:
Purdue University water system engineer Andrew Whelton led the WVTAP program for the Tomblin administration and was surprised at both the way the CSB selectively cited his work, and at the fact that the board’s report did not cite any of the numerous peer-reviewed publications about the spill that have been written by academic experts over the past two years. Many of those scientific papers warned of spill-related problems and dangers that government officials had insisted did not exist, and other papers clearly outlined gaps in how the nation’s drinking water system is protected from such incidents.
“Not citing work conducted by the multitude of universities that participated in the response and recovery seems deliberate,” Whelton said last week, after a preliminary review of the board report.
“I would be interested in the reasons why work conducted by academic institutions did not rise to the level of citation in such an investigation,” Whelton added. “Several organizations conducted testing to better understand the chemical properties and exposures. Others examined wastewater treatment plant processes and the fate of chemicals in the environment and wastewater systems.”
Since then, though, Andy Whelton has submitted a much more thorough examination of the CSB’s report, along with a demand that the agency “immediately retract your report and remove it from circulation until it is corrected.” Now, putting aside the problems with a government agency removing a public document — even a flawed one — from circulation — it’s well worth looking at some of the major points Andy Whelton makes here:
— CSB has claimed the 4-MCHM level entering the water treatment plant at 5pm on January 9 was 13.7 ppm. CSB provides absolutely no source for this information and this level was never made public by the State of West Virginia or WVAW. In fact, when I was part of WVTAP the state of West Virginia told us the data they jointly collected with WVAW was all that was available for 4-MCHM levels.
— At no point did CSB acknowledge that the CDC screening level did not consider inhalation exposure. This is highly disturbing and perpetuates a falsehood lacking scientific basis.
— How is the discovery by WVTAP that 4-MCHM was still present in resident homes one month after the spill not a major event on the timeline? This should be added.
— CSB has deliberately mislead the public with the following statement and this is shocking: “The yearlong study, completed in June 2016, evaluated the toxicity of MCHM and concluded that exposure at or below the MCHM Screening level of 1 ppm is not considered not likely to be associated with any adverse health effects.” While the CSB cites the National Toxicology Program final update posted online, CSB fails to point out that the NTP studies did not evaluate inhalation exposures. There is NO data for the long-term health impacts caused by inhalation exposures. National Toxicology Program admitted publicly their data do not apply to inhalation exposures. The omission of this information by CSB is disturbing and must be addressed in the revised CSB report.
— CSB does not indicate they reviewed drinking water customer complaint records from WVAW, yet makes the claim that “WVAW did not receive any complaints of licorice-smelling water from customers prior to becoming aware of the release…”
— CSB shall more clearly define what liquids were spilled, what they fully consisted of, what chemicals entered the water supply, were distributed to residents, and what research was conducted to identify and evaluate the fate and toxicity of these chemicals. CSB’s inconsistent approach in their report implies they do not understand what chemicals were spilled, where they went, what residents were exposed to, and what different agencies did based on requests from other agencies, among other deficiencies.
— Why wasn’t any of the plumbing system flushing guidance discussed? How is this not a critical aspect of the chemical exposures residents experienced? There was no scientific justification provided for this deliberate omission. In light of the disclosure by CSB that the highest MCHM level experienced was over 4 ppm, this makes the inhalation exposure a lot more significant.
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.
The text of Sen. Boxer’s letter contains this especially interesting language:
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.
If you read through the CSB’s 125-page report on the Freedom spill and the regional water crisis that follows, the phrase “inherently safer technology” doesn’t appear … not once.
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.
U.S. CSB illustration
Today’s release of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board report on the Freedom Industries chemical spill might seem a little anticlimactic, given how much we’ve learned about the spill and the ensuing water crisis from various other investigations. But — despite the lack of strong reform recommendations (see previous post about what I was looking for) in the draft report made public this morning — we have learned a few new interesting things, thanks to the CSB’s hardworking and expert investigators.
Here are six things the jumped out at me:
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.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board will report to residents of the Kanawha Valley about what its investigation team found in a more than two-year investigation of the chemical spill at Freedom Industries and the region-wide drinking water crisis that followed.
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).
Of course, there have been other investigations of Freedom: A criminal investigation by then-U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin; a report issued by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey; a report from the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and Downstream Strategies; an after-action review by the Tomblin administration; the still ongoing Public Service Commission investigation; and of course ongoing class-action litigation. That’s just to name a few.
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).
That’s what the CSB did, for example, when its investigation of two deaths at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute led to the most complete discussion ever of the dangers of the plant’s MIC chemical inventory — a move that eventually played a role in the dismantling of that stockpile (see below or click here for an interactive map of the five CSB investigations in West Virginia in the last decade).
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.
Now since then, EPA has settled a citizen group lawsuit by agreeing to write additional regulations on this issue. But, as explained here, the sorts of chemicals leaked by Freedom aren’t really covered by that settlement. So is there still a loophole and, if so, how big? And will the CSB recommend that EPA do anything about it?
Along with that, while West Virginia lawmakers passed their own above-ground storage tank bill shortly after the chemical spill, they went in just a year later — with a push from leaders of both parties — to greatly reduce the scope of that new law. If the CSB cites passage of this law as some progress, will it also make any recommendations about whether going back and gutting the bill was a good idea? Did board experts examine the state’s new rules and will they provide some guidance about whether they are sufficient?
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.
For example, a key issue in the federal litigation over the spill has to do with the properties of MCHM and whether the type of tank Freedom was using was appropriate for that material, and what MCHM-maker Eastman Chemical did — or didn’t — tell Freedom about those things. The CSB early on indicated an interest in this topic — and in fact it’s been described as part of an effort to apply the board’s broader focus on inherently safer principals to the Freedom incident.
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:
The answer to yesterday’s question — will the CSB investigate the Axiall Corp. chlorine leak — is a apparently a resounding “no.”
We’ve not gotten a response from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s press office yet, but here’s the tweet from one of the board members:
Also, @chemsafetyboard is not deploying to the Axiall incident in WV.— Kristen Kulinowski (@Kulinowski) August 30, 2016
Interestingly, board member Kristen Kulinowski also reported via Twitter that the CSB would be deploying to this incident in Cantonment, Florida:
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.— Kenwardjr (@Kenwardjr) August 29, 2016
That prompted this response from one of the board members:
When I inquired about that, board member Kulinowski responded on Twitter:
Our discussion continued:
Hopefully, we’ll learn sometime soon what the CSB decides about the Axiall leak.
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.
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