Canadian Manufacturing

W.Va chemical spill: Company eluded state oversight

Freedom Industries' tanks don't fall under an inspection program and the chemicals stored at the facility didn't require environmental permitting



CHARLESTON, W.Va.—Officials are promising that a ban on tap water tainted by a chemical spill will soon be lifted as hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia had to wash, cook and brush their teeth with bottled water for a fifth day.

Over the weekend, tests showed levels of the licorice-smelling chemical used in coal processing were consistently below a toxic threshold, and in some samples, there was no trace of the chemical at all. As the tests were expected to continue Monday, there were still questions about how and why the leak occurred and whether the company, Freedom Industries, took too long to let state officials know about the problem.

Water distribution centres have handed out bottled water, and trucks with large tanks of water have filled up containers for people to take home. So far, only 10 people exposed to the contaminated water were admitted to the hospital, and none was in serious condition, Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling said.

The chemical, even in its most concentrated form, isn’t deadly. However, people were told they shouldn’t even wash their clothes in affected water, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

Lawmakers were to return to the Capitol on Monday after Friday’s session was cut short because there wasn’t any water. Their work now will likely include a look at how Freedom Industries flew under the regulatory radar.

Freedom Industries’ tanks don’t fall under an inspection program and the chemicals stored at the facility weren’t considered hazardous enough to require environmental permitting. Essentially, Freedom Industries wasn’t under state oversight at all, said Michael Dorsey, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Homeland Security and Emergency Response office.

About 7,500 gallons of the chemical is believed to have leaked from the tank and a containment area and some of it got into the Elk River and the water treatment plant, which is about a mile downstream from Freedom Industries. The chemical quickly dissolves in water, meaning it can’t be filtered out or skimmed from water, so people have had to wait for it to pass through the water system or be diluted to the point where the water is again safe.

Online maps and automated phone calls will let water customers know when their areas have been cleared. Residents will also be instructed on how to flush their homes of any contaminated water.

About 170 people were treated and released from emergency rooms for exposure. There were 1,045 calls to a poison control centre about human exposure and 65 animal-related calls, officials said.

Associated Press writers Pam Ramsey and Mitch Weiss in Charleston, West Virginia, contributed to this report.

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