For almost a week Charleston (and the surrounding communities) has been without drinking water. A week ago a leak was discovered in a former fuel storage tank that was being used to store MCHM. By all accounts about 7,500 gallons of MCHM was released into the Elk River a mile and a half up river from the water intake for the drinking water supply for Charleston, West Virginia. The water company originally believed that the plant filter could remove the MCHM which is actually the acronym for 4-methylcyclohexane methanol a modestly water soluble octanol used in air freshener and for washing coal, but the water treatment plant’s filtration is not effective in removing the chemical and they were forced to issue a do not use for drinking, cooking or bathing warning to their water customers.
The chemical storage facility is owned by a private company, Freedom Industries, Inc. that primarily appears to distribute chemicals. The site of the leak was once a Pennzoil-Quaker State gasoline and diesel storage terminal that was sold in 2001. These old tanks (reportedly installed around 1938) were apparently put to new use storing chemicals.Though it was common in the past to have fuel storage tanks on rivers, it was not the safest of ideas; however, the fuel arrived by barge. When Pennzoil-Quaker State closed the facility and sold it, the new owners though it was okay to store solvent in an old 35,000 gallon above ground riveted storage tank that clearly had inadequate secondary containment to prevent a spill into the river. This was all legal. There are very limited requirements for secondary containment on ASTs and no lifetime limits on equipment age . This has been a known problem for decades.
Back in January 1988 about 800,000 gallons of diesel fuel escaped from an Ashland Oil company storage tank that ruptured 20 miles upriver from downtown Pittsburgh. The 40-year-old tank was within a containment dike that reportedly held 2.5 million gallons but failed to stop the overspill from running into the river. The oil spill shut down drinking water for days. The problem then and now is that the secondary containment that was historically used for fuel storage was motivated to prevent fires, not prevent leakage into the river. Diesel and gasoline float and are easier to capture that an octanol, but that is secondary. In many places (and apparently still in West Virginia) the secondary containment was earthen berms without a liner.
Despite the striking reminder from the Pittsburgh incident and others, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate most aboveground fuel storage tanks (AST) and there are no national standards for secondary containment and spill prevention. In addtion, tanks have no maximum life and there are tanks more than 75 years old that continue to be used. This endangers our rivers and groundwater. Unless you have a permit to discharge to surface waters you are not required to have a spill prevention plan. All fuel and chemical storage tanks whether aboveground or underground should be required to have adequate secondary containment and spill prevention plans. There are two types of ASTs: vertical and horizontal. Horizontal ASTs typically hold from a few hundred gallons up to 20,000 gallons, while the storage capacity of vertical ASTs ranges from several thousand gallons to over 10 million gallons. Nothing is fail safe and these tanks pose a risk to our water supplies that needs to be addressed.
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and it various amendments have increased the number of chemicals that they must test for and tightened the standards they must meet, but those have typically addressed chemicals that appear in river water as runoff and from water discharged from waste water treatment plants. Drinking water supplies for cities are typically drawn from rivers which are highly vulnerable to upstream spills and pollution. We need to protect our water resources and drinking water supplies by preventing pollution not just beefing up the water treatment process.