Emergency water supplies
The National Guard
The National Guard delivered emergency water supplies in West Virginia after Freedom Industries ruined the regular water supplies.

The Jan. 9 spill of as much as 10,000 gallons from a steel tank next to the Elk River didn’t just poison water supplies relied upon by 300,000 West Virginians. It revealed holes in state and federal safety rules big enough to drive hazmat-loaded trucks through.

The tanks that Freedom Industries uses to store chemicals at its facility in Charleston are more than 50 years old, and company officials knew that chemicals were being stored in them in ways that did not meet industry or EPA standards.

Environmental consultants audited storage drums for the company late last year, but never inspected the drum that leaked and contaminated water supplies. Its contents — a toxic, little-understood coal-cleaning stew of 4-Methylcyclohexane methanol and something the company calls stripped PPH — were considered nonhazardous under federal law. Still, if anybody had cared to check, they would have discovered that a leak from the aging drum could flow straight through gravel and cinder blocks and into the river.

That’s according to congressional testimony by Rafael Moure-Eraso, chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Tank 396 photo
State of West Virginia
Here are the holes in Freedom Industries’ leaky tank.

“While there are laws prohibiting polluting to waterways with a spill, there are not really any clear, mandatory standards for how you site, design, maintain, and inspect non-petroleum tanks at a storage facility,” Moure-Eraso told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a hearing on Monday. “Under existing state and federal laws these tanks, including tank 396, were not regulated by the state or federal government.”

You probably want some kind of an explanation from Freedom Industries about its sloppy chemical-storing practices. But bad luck, because its officials skipped the hearing, even though it was held right in Charleston. The Huffington Post reports:

Freedom Industries, which owns the storage facility that leaked chemicals into the Elk River, did not have any representatives at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held in the state capital Monday morning. The company’s president, Gary Southern, had been invited to testify. …

“The one empty seat … belongs to the one entity at the epicenter of all this,” said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), “the one who totally blew it.” …

A representative for Freedom Industries referred questions on the company’s absence at the hearing to its lawyer, Paul Vey. Southern did not attend the hearing, Vey said, “simply because the company is relatively small and we are focused exclusively on remediation of the spill.”

And you probably want to know whether the water supplies are now safe. Again — bad luck. There’s no straight answer. That’s partly due to the fact that so little is known about the chemicals that spilled.

“That’s in a way a difficult thing to say because everyone has a different definition of safe,” state safety official Letitia Tierney told representatives when she was asked whether the water is now safe.

Meanwhile, ThinkProgress reports that West Virginians have begun receiving exorbitant water bills — the price of flushing poisonous water out of their plumbing systems. West Virginia American Water has promised discounts to help residential customers meet the costs of flushing 500 gallons of water apiece. But those discounts have been missing from recent bills.