Official says firm was aware of need for safety measures
January 11, 2014 11:08 PM
Michael Switzer/Associated Press
Members of the Nitro Volunteer Fire Department help to distribute bottled water Saturday to residents. The West Virginia National Guard was sent to distribute water as residents bought up stock at local supermarkets.
By Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The thousands of West Virginia residents unable to use tap water since Thursday’s chemical leak into the Elk River will have to wait a few more days, officials said late Saturday night, until their water is safe.
The West Virginia National Guard has been running hourly tests on the chemical’s concentration since Thursday night. Some samples have registered below one part per million — considered a safe level — but others have spiked, said Lt. Cpl. Greg Grant of the West Virginia National Guard.
More than 100 samples will be collected today. When the water is consistently at under one part per million for 24 hours, flushing of the system can begin.
According to one state official, the company where the leak occurred, Freedom Industries, knew it needed to improve its safety measures.
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Michael Dorsey, chief of homeland security and emergency services for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said Freedom Industries had just put $1 million in escrow to fix the secondary containment.
“They hadn’t got a chance to do it yet,” he said, citing a conversation with the company’s president, Gary Southern. The investment was part of the company’s agreement to purchase the property in the last 30 days, Mr. Dorsey said Mr. Southern told him.
Mr. Dorsey said the chemical — which is thinner than water and has an unmistakable licorice odor — escaped through a hole in the steel tank, about an inch in diameter.
Eventually, it pooled near the secondary containment barrier, a cement wall, then seeped through the mortar.
It was still unclear how the hole in the tank formed, but Mr. Southern suggested at a Friday press briefing that cold temperatures might have compromised its structural integrity.
Because the facility doesn’t produce chemicals on site, it does not have to have a permit from or be inspected by the state Department of Environmental Protection, said West Virginia DEP spokesman Tom Aluise.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he and DEP Secretary Randy Huffman will discuss existing reporting requirements.
“And I do think we have to look at them to make sure that this kind of incident does not happen again,” he said at a Saturday night press conference.
Also on Saturday, Mr. Dorsey said it appears 7,500 gallons of the chemical — 4-methylcyclohexane methane — escaped from the tank, higher than officials’ previous estimates. How much went into the Elk River is not yet known. The chemical is a sudsing agent used to wash fine dust from coal.
A spokeswoman for Freedom didn’t return a message and the company was not invited to a Saturday press conference, a governor’s spokeswoman said.
By Saturday afternoon, 73 people had gone to hospitals in the area with symptoms such as nausea, eye irritation or vomiting, and five had been admitted to two local hospitals, said West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen L. Bowling.
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller announced on Saturday that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board will look into the spill beginning Monday, in response to a letter he wrote imploring the federal agency to launch an investigation.
“I am profoundly troubled by yesterday’s chemical spill and am concerned about the problems it is causing hundreds of thousands of West Virginians across nine counties,” he wrote in the letter dated Friday. “This incident has significant economic, public health and safety impacts, and West Virginians are seeking answers as to why this happened so that it never occurs again.”
Board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said in a statement: “This incident continues to impact the people of West Virginia — our goal is to find out what happened to allow a leak of such magnitude to occur and to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place to prevent a similar incident from occurring.”
Freedom Industries issued an apology on Friday.
“We’d like to start by sincerely apologizing to the people in the affected counties of West Virginia,” Mr. Southern said. “Our friends and our neighbors, this incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated and we are very, very sorry for the disruptions to everybody’s daily life this incident has caused.”
Despite the unknowns, businesses forced to close after the spill received some good news Saturday.
Business owners can submit a plan outlining how they would operate on alternate sources of potable water, and health officials in Kanawha and Putnam counties will review them for approval.
“The good news here is that we have begun opening restaurants,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, county health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County boards of health. “We will work around the clock, 24-7, and try to open ... as many businesses as possible in the next couple of days.”
West Virginia Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordiro said superintendents in the affected counties, who are in contact with their respective emergency management officials, will decide today if schools will open Monday, provided the order is lifted.
The leak Thursday shut down businesses, schools, offices and left 300,000 people across nine counties without water even to wash dishes or bathe in and prompted state and federal disaster declarations.
Residents were out Saturday refilling water supplies at grocery stores and water distribution sites in the region. Some even placed containers outside to collect rainwater from morning rainstorms.
“I got my bucket sitting out in the rain. I’m waiting for Mother Nature to help out,” said Shirley Parliament, 56.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency delivered more than a million liters of water from nearby Maryland Friday and 800,000 liters Saturday. Another 800,000 were scheduled to arrive today.
The Brother’s Brother Foundation announced Saturday that it is working with Gleaning for the World to provide water in the area. Gleaning for the World sent seven tractor trailer loads of bottled water to FEMA and faith-based distribution sites.
The Associated Press contributed. Molly Born: email@example.com, 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @borntolede.
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