PRICE: Freedom Spill

Three Years Later, Could It Happen Again?
By Philip H. Price, PhD

Philip H. Price

Three Hundred Thousand West Virginians could again have contaminated water, if a chemical spill occurred tonight into the Elk River.  Most of the key failures in the chain of events three years ago are still present.

After learning of the spill, West Virginia American Water decided not to close the intake, based on fears they would suffer a catastrophic “depressurization event” (water loss) out in their distribution system.  Without data on how long they could close their intake, they chose not to take the risk. The latest version of their “Source Water Protection Plan” (SWPP) still does not include this real-time calculation. Thus, even knowing of a spill into the Elk tonight, they are not prepared to close the intake.

Senate Bill 373 required WVAmW to install monitoring equipment for contaminants most likely to affect our drinking water. January of 2015, WVAmW reported to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance that they were installing an “ABB UV254 surrogate probe for total organics” to monitor for spills. Unfortunately, the inexpensive instrument they chose has serious limitations. It will not effectively detect many of the most likely spills – diesel fuel, gasoline, kerosene, naphtha, paint thinner, methanol, dry-cleaning solvent, de-icer, soap, and MCHM.  A best practices online Total Organic Carbon instrument, as used by other water utilities, would warn of an approaching spill, and define when the spill has passed. Three years after the Freedom spill, Kanawha Valley residents still have little protective warning of a contamination event.

The day of the spill, poor communication among various agencies led to delays in notifying the public. May of 2016, Jennifer Sayre (Kanawha Co. Mgr.) sent WVAmW a comment that “neither Kanawha County Emergency Management, nor Kanawha-Putnam Local Emergency Planning Committee” were included in a water emergency plan. As of this month, it seems these experienced responders are still excluded from WVAmW’s plans.

Failure to understand the properties of the “Crude MCHM” spill caused many problems. A key missing step was availability of Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for the spilled chemicals. Senate Bills 373 and 423 required all registered Aboveground Storage Tank (AST) owners to provide SDSs.  Based on conversations with WV Bureau for Public Health personnel, even a year past the deadline, many sheets are still not available.

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) issued a critically flawed report on the spill – they never determined:

  • What chemicals were involved? (over 20,000 lbs never identified)
  • How much was spilled?
  • How did the spill happen?
  • Who received what amount of exposures?

The CSB’s report had no preventive recommendations for anyone in WV. The WV PSC’s investigation of WVAmW has been stalled for three years. We now know the eight National Toxicology Program safety tests were not done on the correct chemicals.

Accidents are investigated so they don’t happen again.  Causes are studied, and preventive actions are taken. Many causes of our contamination event are still being ignored (flawed CSB Report, stalled PSC investigation) and the protective measures to date are inadequate.