The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

January 22, 2014

Environmentalist: Failure on multiple levels led to Elk River chemical spill

By Pamela Pritt
The Register-Herald

CHARLESTON — Evan Hansen told members of two House committees Tuesday that failure at multiple levels — both government and industry — led to a chemical leak in the Elk River nearly two weeks ago. A storage tank at Freedom Industries seeped 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (Crude MCHM) into the soil and eventually into the river above the water intake affecting roughly 300,000 people, some who went without water in their homes for a week.

Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies, an environmental consulting firm, also told the House committees that “it’s time to change the tone” when it comes to anti-regulation and anti-Environmental Protection Agency rhetoric.

“Protecting human health and the environment is directly linked to a thriving, diversified economy,” Hansen said.

Hansen said his 43-page report focuses on three laws, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

Charleston, at the confluence of two of the state’s major rivers, has 51 potential significant contaminant sources, Hansen said, including the tanks at Freedom Industries.

One of the key failures included the fact Freedom Industries had a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which requires immediate reporting of non-compliance that may endanger health or the environment, Hansen said. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issues and enforces NPDES permits.

“The DEP already has authority here,” Hansen said.

Under the Clean Water Act, Hansen said the DEP is required to inspect all NPDES permitted sites and “immediately inspect the most critical sites, but should also have required additional permits for Freedom Industries and similar facilities.

Hansen stressed the recommendation that the DEP should have increased funding and staffing for environmental enforcement programs.

When discussing the Safe Drinking Water Act, Hansen said that the state had a Source Water Assessment Report written in 2002, a “great first step.” The report outlines a system “highly susceptible” to contamination, and delineates a zone of critical concern in the Charleston area.

But the first few steps were all the state ever took, Hansen said, as no protection plan was ever put in place.

Hansen said the legislature could immediately update the state’s Source Water Assessment Reports, mandate protection plans and provide the funding to write them. Also, he said, West Virginia should go above and beyond federal regulations and determine state-specific standards that address chemicals used in large quantities here. In addition, Local Emergency Planning Committees should review SWARs and “take all necessary action,” he said.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act requires such planning, particularly with hazardous chemicals. The Act requires industries to report on the storage of hazardous chemicals, and Freedom Industries had listed Crude MCHM among the chemicals it has stored since 2007. MCHM is listed as an “immediate (acute) physical and health hazard,” Hansen said. Freedom stored anywhere from 100,000 to nearly 1 million pounds of MCHM, Hansen said.

But the fact that Freedom Industries had reported its chemical inventory did little to help mitigate a disaster if no one paid attention to the contents of the report.

“It’s up to local officials to make use of it,” Hansen said.

Hansen said LEPCs should be supported in their planning efforts and those committees should utilize information submitted on Tier Two forms to minimize risk.

Hansen went on to parse the two proposals on the table — Senate Majority Leader John Unger’s bill and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposal. Hansen also made recommendations of his own.

Unger’s bill focuses on above ground tanks, but does not recognize authorities under existing NPDES permits, nor does it mandate protection plans, Hansen said.

Tomblin’s recommendations do not “recognize the value of clean water to economic prosperity (and) human health,” focusses on above ground storage tanks, but with numerous loopholes and does not recognize authorities under existing NPDES permits. Tomblin does recommend protection plans, but does not provide funding for those plans.

Hansen recommended taking advantage of existing NPDES permit authorities, and require individual permits for industrial facilities in zones of critical concern. Hansen also recommended requiring DEP inspections, additional permit conditions and increased funding and staff at the DEP. He said protection plans should be rapidly developed and mandated, but warned the legislators the planning process takes time, and should have community support. He recommended the planning process be funded, as well.

Hansen said the Legislature should “provide state-specific protective standards for chemicals used in large quantities in West Virginia.” Zoning can be used as a tool to minimize risk, he said.

Hansen said the federal government has set drinking water standards for many chemicals, but not for Crude MCHM, one reason that West Virginia should have state-specific standards.

“If the science had been done beforehand, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today,” he said.