Chemical spill aftermath: legislation proposed, additional chem leak & chapter 11 bankruptcy

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Monday was joined by U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, Senate President Jeff Kessler, and House Speaker Tim Miley in announcing new proposed legislation to implement an above ground storage tank regulation program in West Virginia.


chemical spill freedom industries

The Governor’s legislation will assure all above ground storage tanks are built and maintained consistent with required safety standards; require all public water systems to have written plans in place to prepare for emergencies, specifically in the event a contaminant is discharged in the water supply; and will protect the health and safety of West Virginians and the environment.

In addition, the legislation will empower the DEP to implement a regulation program requiring all operators with above ground storage tanks to self-report the location of all tanks, detail the construction and maintenance and require written annual reports on any changes to on-site tanks.

“The discharge of chemicals or other contaminants into our water supply is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,”the Governor said.

The spill from Freedom Industries into the Elk River contaminated the water supply of WV American Water Company serving a nine-county area starting on January 9, making the water unfit for any purpose but flushing toilets. Three hundred thousand people have been affected along with businesses, hospitals, schools, and other institutions.

State and water company officials began declaring the water safe to use and drink in some areas last week, but shortly afterward they had to issue an advisory for pregnant women. Since then, the “safe” designation has expanded to cover all of the affected areas, but the West Virginia Gazette reports that hospital admissions for chemical-related symptoms have skyrocketed, indicating that the declaration was premature.

The initial chemical (MCHM) identified in the spill may not have been the only one. On Tuesday, Jan. 21 another chemical product called “PPH”’ was discovered to be included in the tank that leaked, but officials were not made aware of that fact until earlier in the day more than ten days after the spill occurred.

Crude MCHM is not specifically covered by federal regulations. However, given the location of the Freedom Industries storage tanks alongside the river, upstream from a major water supply intake, common sense clearly indicates that state agencies, at least, should have taken the lead to establish a hazard mitigation strategy, in the absence of any responsible measures taken by Freedom Industry, states in their report on the fallout continuing from the chemical spill.

“Our lack of regulation failed us in this instance,” stated Senate President Jeff Kessler in a press release. “I so often hear in the Legislature that government should get out of the way and make it easier for industry to do business. While there are some instances where regulation oversteps its bounds, I can think of 300,000 state residents that now wish we had clear, defined regulations on the books that would have prevented this tragedy.””

U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller, in a letter to WV American Water president Jeffrey Mclntyre, asked for transparency in posting details for chemical testing results of MCHM and for details of the new discovery that PPH was also leaked. “While Crude MCHM levels are dropping in all areas, many residents are finding elevation spikes in chemical levels in certain areas,” he reported. He asked for continued assurances so that people “will have more confidence in the water they are using and consuming.” In support of those concerns, according to Keeper o f the Mountain ‘s website: “Our state officials say the water is safe, but we keep meeting people who say they’re getting sick from their tap water getting rashes, headaches, stomachaches, vomiting.”

On Tuesday, Freedom Industries reached a bankruptcy court deal for up to $4 million in credit from a lender to help continue operations, as reported in The Guardian.

The deal lets the company continue paying its 51 employees in the short term, a biweekly payroll of about $172,000, said company attorney Mark Freelander. The company can also continue paying costs for environmental remediation and will have money for critical day-to-day administrative expenses, and can pay top vendors, according to the attorney.

Freedom Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Friday, Jan. 17, freezing dozens of lawsuits against the company. Many are by local businesses owners who say they lost money during the water-use ban that lasted several days. State and federal investigations into the spill are continuing.

In bankruptcy court testimony, Freedom Industries president Gary Southern said the company spent $800,000 last week to remedy environmental damage from the spill.

Approached by reporters after the bankruptcy hearing with questions about the second chemical, Southern walked away and said he had another meeting to attend.

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