Final report released on January 2014 MCHM chemical spill

Published: May. 11, 2017 at 11:07 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) released a revised final report Thursday into the January 2014 chemical spill in Charleston that contaminated drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people

"Freedom's communication to the public, state and federal agencies, WVAW and first responders regarding the chemicals and quantity of chemicals involved in the leak was deficient," the report reads.

The chemical spill happened Jan. 9, 2014, when a storage tank at Freedom Industries corroded, leaking more than 10,000 gallons of the chemical MCHM (mixed with PPH, stripped) into the Elk River.

According to the report released Thursday, the spill restricted water use for nearly 300,000 people. More than 300 people sought medical treatment for potential exposure.

The report concludes that Freedom failed to immediately communicate information about all the chemicals present inside the tank including the second chemical (PPH) until 12 days after the leak was discovered.

"This release occurred because of a lack of preventive maintenance and inspections. There is no systemic inspection program that would have identified the corrosion. The community was put at needless risk. If the operator had followed the industry's pre-established guidance on inspections, this incident would never have happened," said CSB Chairperson Vanessa Sutherland.

Not disclosing information about the second chemical "offered little information to immediately establish the threat to humans," according to the report.

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) inspectors responded to the chemical storage and distribution facility in Charleston after people complained about a chemical odor. They discovered MCHM leaking from an aboveground storage tank through two holes formed by corrosion.

According to the report, the secondary containment wall, originally designed to control leaks, had cracks and holes from disrepair that allowed the mixture to escape.

"In the course of our investigation, the CSB met with all potential recommendation recipients. We found that many had already established requirements and implemented practices that address the safety gaps identified in our investigation," Sutherland said.

The chemical drained into the gravel and soil surrounding the tank and got into the Elk River.

After the WVDEP's response, the report says Freedom took action to stop the leak and prevent further contamination.

The company made efforts to recover the spill and vacuum the contents still in the tank, but nearly 11,000 gallons of the chemical mixture had already entered into the surrounding soil and the Elk River.

Once in the river, the chemical flowed downstream about 1.5 miles to the intake of the West Virginia American Water (WVAW) water treatment facility.

According to the report, the facility's water treatment and filtration process was unable to remove all of the chemical mixture, contaminating the drinking water.

WVAW issued a Do Not Use order that evening for 93,000 customer accounts (approximately 300,000 residents.)

The order spanned across portions of nine counties.

People were advised to restrict usage of tap water for drinking, cooking and bathing for four to nine days, depending on their location.

During the next couple of weeks, public health officials would review 369 records of emergency room visits in 10 local hospitals.

The patients' symptoms included nausea, rashes, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea following exposure to the water through inhalation, ingestion and/or skin contact. Hospitals never could confirm that the chemical spill caused those symptoms.

However, public health agencies concluded that the symptoms appeared to correspond with the first few days of the incident. The symptoms also matched descriptions of MCHM exposure hazards.

According to the report, the spill resulted in closures of many businesses, schools and public offices. FEMA, the West Virginia National Guard, other state agencies and WVAW worked to make water available.

Some people reported that the "highly detectable" licorice odor from the chemicals stuck around for a few weeks after the leak.

Gary Southern, the former president of Freedom Industries, was sentenced in federal court in 2016 to one month in prison, six months supervised release and a $20,000 fine.

Southern pleaded guilty to three charges, including negligent discharge of pollutant, causing a discharge of refuse and violating a condition of a clean water act permit.

To see the complete reports from the investigation, check out the related links with this story.