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February 28, 2014
Regs not apparent for failed WV tank

Leaks in a 46,000-gallon-capacity tank storing two chemicals and in the porous containment walls surrounding it, which polluted the drinking water supply of 300,000 people in a nine-county region near Charleston, West Virginia, on January 9, 2014, have prompted multiple state and federal investigations and hearings by congressional committees. 

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One recurring theme in the resulting discussions is that the tank was not subject to state or federal regulations because the chemicals it contained are not considered hazardous.  Despite the nonlisting of the chemicals, the estimated 10,000 gallons that entered the Elk River about 1.5 miles upstream of a potable water supply intake of the local water authority forced the authority to advise its customers to restrict use of the water to flushing toilets.  The failed tank and about 20 others are on an embankment less than 100 feet from the river.

The drinking water alert was lifted 10 days after the spill was discovered.

No toxicity data

According to information released by Freedom Industries, which owns and operates the tank farm where the release occurred, the failed tank contained 4-methylcyclohexne methanol (MCHM) and a much smaller amount (about 5 percent of the total contents) of a mixture of polyglycol ethers (PPH).   The material safety data sheets issued by the manufacturers of these chemicals indicated that little is known about the toxicities of these chemicals. 

Federal law requires spill prevention, control, and countermeasures (SPCC) plans for aboveground tanks containing petroleum, and it appears that the company did have an SPCC plan for its petroleum tanks.  However, the SPCC requirements do not extend to tanks with chemicals; hence, the failed tank and its secondary containment were not subject to required SPCC inspections. 

“While there are laws prohibiting polluting to waterways with a spill, there are not really any clear, mandatory standards for how you site, design, maintain, and inspect non-petroleum tanks at a storage facility,” noted Rafel Moure-Eraso, chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board at a House field hearing on the West Virginia incident.

Moure-Eraso indicated that more information on the environmental and health hazards of MCHM and PPH would become available under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) reform bill languishing in Congress. 

Legislation introduced

Moure-Eraso also endorsed the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act, which was introduced by West Virginia’s two Democratic senators, along with California Democrat Barbara Boxer, on January 28, 2014, specifically in response to the Freedom Industries incident.  The bill would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act by requiring that states establish programs to oversee and inspect chemical facilities that present a threat to sources of drinking water.  Chemical facilities subject to a state program would need to meet minimum requirements in four areas—construction standards; leak detection a spill and overfill requirements; emergency response and communication plans; and notification of the EPA, state officials, and public water systems of chemicals that are being stored at a facility.

The bill would also set minimum inspection requirements, give drinking water systems more power to respond to an emergency, and ensure that states can recover costs incurred from an emergency response.

Click here for House testimony on the West Virginia incident.

Click here for Senate testimony on the incident.

The Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act of 2014

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