For about a week in the middle of January Charleston (and the surrounding communities) was without drinking water when a leak was discovered in a former fuel storage tank that was being used to store MCHM. By all accounts about 10, 000 gallons (previously estimated at 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. MCHM is 4-methylcyclohexylmethanol an alcohol with a licorice or mint smell at extremely low concentrations, and though there are limited studies it is believed to have relatively low toxicity. Now a month later, MCHM has been once more detected in the water supply and forced a closing of Charleston schools. The New York Times reports a “Crisis of Confidence,” “emotional public meetings,” and politicians and the U. S Environmental Protection Agency “listening” and “sharing” the public’s concern.
When the MCHM leak was first discovered the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, DEP, found a MCHM storage tank with a hole in it sitting within an unlined concrete block containment dike. The DEP inspectors noted a 4 foot wide stream of liquid flowing across the dike and into the ground. So here’s what happened, the MCHM leaked from the tank into an unlined cinderblock containment area and then into the ground through which it began leaching into the Elk River and flowing about a mile down to the Charleston West Virginia water intake for the American Water drinking water treatment plant. MCHM will continue to appear in the drinking water as it continues to leach into the river until the site is remediated.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, the state and federal regulators, the water company need to do a little less talking and listening and a little more remediation. This is the drinking water supply for 300,000 people, old, young, healthy, sick, and pregnant- the entire spectrum and the drinking water supply is a potential chronic long term low level exposure to MCHM for years. Ultimately they will end up taking steps to address the public concern, do it now. It is an inelegant solution, but a quick one to remove the tank or tanks and dig up and remove all the contaminated soil to be remediated at a different site away from a drinking water supply. Though in most instances, I would not recommend excavate and haul for a remediation approach because it simply moves a contamination problem, in this instance that is what should be done for the public good, peace of mind of the entire community and safety and security of the water supply. Move all the soil contaminated with a moderately toxic substance away from the drinking water supply. When dealing with a drinking water supply and public concern, a brute force and fast cleanup might be the best answer. Worry about cost and liability later; restore the water supply and the public’s trust in the ability to supply reliable and pure water.
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 MCHM 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, but it should not have been. Chemicals and fuel storage tanks both above and below ground should be permitted for a set number of years that is less than the expected life of the containment system. Instead tanks are allowed to remain in use until they fail. In addition, there are very limited requirements for secondary containment on ASTs and no lifetime limits on equipment age. This metal tank was 75 years old.
We as a nation have lost respect for stewardship and engineering. Politics runs the country and businesses. This is what happens when a nation’s infrastructure is not maintained and it is only going to increase. There are hundreds of examples of mechanical, design and structural failure turning up every day, but only the multi-million dollar problems make the news. The EPA needs to stop focusing all their energies on global issues and refocus their attention on maintaining water quality and availability. As a nation we need to focus on maintaining and improving water, sewage, electricity, roads and essential infrastructure in the United States.
Every four years, America’s civil engineers provide a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s major infrastructure categories in ASCE’s Report Card for America’s. Using a simple A to F school report card format, the Report Card provides a comprehensive assessment of current infrastructure conditions based on: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation. Our grades average Ds, due to delayed maintenance and underinvestment across most categories. We are a nation of infrastructure deniers.