West Virginia Disaster Made Inevitable by Industry Neglect

The warning signs were there, but industry did nothing to prevent spill

Chemical storage tanks at the site of West Virginia's major chemical spill last month were found to be below federal and industry standards in an investigation conducted three months prior to the disaster, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said during testimony at a congressional hearing Monday.

In the hearing held by the West Virginia House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure concerning the January 9th spill at the Freedom Industries facility, the chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, Rafael Moure-Eraso, revealed that an October inspection by a private firm -- Tank Engineering and Management Consultants -- discovered tanks at the Elk River facility were "not necessarily in full compliance with" industry and federal government standards.

CSB is now investigating the spill. "The tanks in use at Freedom Industries were over one-half century old," Moure-Eraso said during the hearing. "Considering the best way to improve the safety of tanks at facilities that have similar tanks in use is an important question."

"There was some concern about the condition of the tanks," Johnnie Banks, lead investigator of CSB's spill probe, said in reference to the months-old Tank Engineering inspection.

During that inspection, however, investigators did not examine the tank which subsequently leaked the 10,000 gallons MCHM into the Elk River, because the chemical was not considered "hazardous" by the the U.S. government--an assumption now being called into question.

The tank, Moure-Eraso explained further, was surrounded by an inadequate "secondary containment wall" that "provided very little protection from a possible release."

That tank eventually developed two substantial holes and released the licorice smelling chemical into the public water supply for over 300,000 residents, which has caused widespread and ongoing health problems.

And despite promises that the water is now safe, it remains unclear one month after the spill just how accurate those promises are--a question officials seemed unable or unwilling to answer at the hearing.

Asked whether the water is actually safe for the public, West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre stated, "As a water company, we don't set the standards but we are in compliance with all the standards."

To the same question, Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, stated, "That's, in a way, a difficult thing to say because everybody has a different definition of 'safe.'"

Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the spill, declined to send a representative to the hearing.

Following the hearing, committee member Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said there was a "hesitancy for anyone to establish that the water is safe."

"We want to hear that," said Capito. "We couldn't get that really from anybody."

Residents are still complaining of health problems associated with MCHM exposure, and five schools were forced to send students home last week when the "licorice-like" odor associated with MCHM along with the associated symptoms was still present on school grounds.

Additionally, Moure-Eraso told Al JazeeraAmerica that the longterm effect of MCHM on humans has not been adequately studied.

"The disturbing lack of knowledge about MCHM has led to criticism of the our chemical safety laws," explains Steven Hsieh at the Nation. "Because MCHM was one of 64,000 chemicals grandfathered in with the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, companies do not have to test or confirm its safety before use."


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