CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Citing “extensive corrosion,” federal investigators said an MCHM chemical storage tank at the Freedom Industries site along the Elk River likely was leaking prior to the Jan. 9 spill that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 people across the region.
U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigators said Wednesday they aren’t sure how long Tank 396 could have been leaking, or if material from it was contained in soil, or if additional chemicals from the tank made their way into the river prior to the day state inspectors discovered a spill while investigating a citizen complaint of a licorice-like odor in the area.
Johnnie Banks, the team leader on the CSB investigation of the Freedom spill, said agency officials are collecting soil samples and performing additional analysis that might help answer those questions.
“If you’re of the mind that Jan. 9 was the first time that material leaked from that tank, stay tuned,” Banks said. He said the CSB hopes to complete its investigation of the Freedom spill by the first anniversary of the incident.
Banks discussed the board’s concern about the extent of time the tank could have been leaking during a public meeting held to release a report on a Hancock County industrial fire that killed three workers and to provide Kanawha Valley residents an update on the Freedom Industries probe.
“An underlying root cause in many of our investigations, including these latest two in West Virginia, is the lack of thorough inspections and hazard reviews, and the need for stricter regulations in areas where we find self-policing is not preventing accidents,” board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said.
The CSB met for three hours Wednesday in a Charleston hotel ballroom. Not far away, crews from a Freedom Industries contractor began demolishing the site’s now-empty chemical storage tank as part of a settlement agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection that closed the facility and requires cleanup of the site.
Among other things, CSB investigators said in Wednesday’s update that they found a hole in a second MCHM storage tank at Freedom and corrosion damage in other tanks, findings that provide more evidence of poor inspection practices and a lack of preventative actions at the site of the January chemical spill…