For five days in January 2014, up to 300,000 West Virginia residents were told not to drink, cook with or wash with their tap water after a chemical spill called its safety into question.
The incident began early on the morning of January 9 when Charleston-area residents began calling 911 and the state Division of Environmental Protection (DEP) complaining of a strange odor in the air and water. Some callers said that their water smelled like licorice. Tracing the smell, DEP investigators found a leak from a tank at a chemical storage facility run by Freedom Industries on the Elk River, just upstream from the intake for West Virginia American Water Company’s Charleston water treatment plant. When hazardous-material crews arrived they found a liquid trail from the leaking tank to the nearby river.
West Virginia American Water, which knew nothing about the spill until informed by DEP, initially thought it could filter out the chemical but found its carbon filters could not do so and thus issued a do-not-use advisory. The company said that it did not know that the water was not safe but could not say it was safe. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties served by the Charleston water treatment plant. The water crisis forced the closure of schools and many businesses. Stores soon ran out of bottled water. The West Virginia National Guard began providing potable water in tankers. The Federal Emergency Management Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security dispatched truck convoys of bottled water to 16 distribution centers. The one town not affected by the ban was St. Albans, which had its own municipal water supply sourced from the Coal River. The city and several stores opened their water taps for people to fill containers, and the restaurants overflowed with out-of-town customers.
The chemical that spilled was identified as crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), used to wash coal and remove impurities that contribute to pollution when coal is burned. The first estimate was that 5,000 gallons of MCHM had spilled into the river. Later, that figure was increased to 7,500 gallons. Officials said little is known about the colorless, oil-like chemical or its possible effect on human health. It is not classified as “hazardous” by regulatory authorities but little research has been done. Freedom Industries later notified the DEP that a second chemical, PPH or polyclycol ethers, had been in the leaking tank with the MCHM. By the evening of January 10, nearly 700 residents had called West Virginia’s poison control center reporting a range of symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and skin irritations. By January 12, 169 people had sought medical treatment for various symptoms. Ultimately, 14 people were hospitalized, although none were said to be in serious condition.
Officials began lifting the ban on January 13, five days after it began. The ban was lifted first at hospitals and then extended zone by zone throughout the nine-county area. As the ban was lifted, West Virginia American Water advised residents to flush the old, potentially contaminated water from their pipes, hot water tanks and the icemakers in their refrigerators. Despite the flushing, traces of the chemical were detected in the water supply through March.
As of January 10, the day after the spill, at least eight lawsuits had been filed against Freedom Industries. More lawsuits followed by residents and businesses wanting compensation for damages from the January spill. Suits were filed not only against Freedom Industries but also its owners, and against West Virginia American Water and Eastman Chemical Company, which manufactured the crude MCHM that spilled.
Freedom Industries declared bankruptcy. At first it said it planned to reorganize and continue operating, but a month later the company’s lawyers told a bankruptcy hearing that it had decided to liquidate its assets. A final agreement, settled in October 2015, used Freedom’s remaining assets and insurance money to finish cleaning up the site, while leftover money would go to people and businesses who claimed losses.
In January, the DEP ordered that the Freedom Industries’ tank farm be shut down and all of its 17 tanks dismantled by March 15. In July, after repeated delays, the leaky tank and most of the facility’s other tanks were dismantled. Four tanks still remained in place.
On December 17, 2014, federal prosecutors charged Freedom Industries and six of its owners, managers and employees with criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. Dennis P. Farrell, William E. Tis, Charles E. Herzing and Gary L. Southern were each charged with three counts of violating federal environmental laws for failing to meet a “reasonable standard of care” in running the company. Southern was also indicted on six counts of bankruptcy fraud, one count of wire fraud and three counts of making false oaths or attempting to conceal his assets, all related to statements he made after the leak.
Freedom plant manager Michael E. Burdette, and Robert J. Reynolds, an environmental compliance officer, were each charged with one count of violating the Clean Water Act.
All six defendants pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston sentenced Southern and Farrell to 30 days in jail, the other four received probation, and the six were fined a total $92,500. Freedom Industries, the company, was fined $900,000 for three criminal charges, but the judge noted that the bankrupt company is unlikely to ever pay.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said conditions at Freedom’s Elk River facility were “not only grievously unacceptable, but unlawful.”
The spill reminded West Virginians of the vulnerability of the state’s valuable water resources. Although previous complaints had been received about odors in the neighborhood, the Freedom Industries tank farm had not been regularly inspected by regulatory agencies. Another state regulation requires chemical companies to provide “immediate” notice of a spill, something Freedom Industries did not do.
The Elk River spill coincided with the 2014 session of the West Virginia Legislature, at which lawmakers approved legislation imposing new inspections, registrations, inventories, and other regulations on above-ground storage tanks. As the law was debated and after it was enacted, representatives for business, chemical and energy interests objected that it was too restrictive.
Written by James E. Casto