Thursday, July 24, 2014

Suprise 75 Year Old Tank Had Been Leaking For Some Time

from a West Virginia Gazette U-tube video
For over days in the middle of last January 2014 Charleston, West Virginia and the surrounding communities were without drinking water due to contamination from a chemical leak. A former fuel storage tank that was being used to store MCHM had released about 10, 000 gallons of MCHM into the Elk River just a mile and a half up river from the water intake for the drinking water supply for Charleston. The chemicals were 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) mixed with 5.6% propylene glycol phenyl ethers (PPH). MCHM is 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. Both MCHM and PPH have known human health effects including skin, eye, and respiratory tract irritation. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, drinking water contaminated with concentrations less than 10 parts per billion MCHM is safe. However, the limited studies done on MCHM were small short term studies on acute exposure as might happen with a chemical worker in an industrial setting, not a large population drinking and bathing in water contaminated with low levels of MCHM.

The chemical storage facility was owned by a private company, Freedom Industries, Inc., now bankrupt due to this incident. The site of the leak was once a Pennzoil-Quaker State gasoline and diesel storage terminal that was sold in 2001 and had recently been acquired by Freedom Industries. These 75 year old tanks were 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, when the facility was built in 1938 the fuel arrived by barge and the drinking water intake was not there. When Pennzoil-Quaker State closed the facility and sold it, the new owners (and apparently the state regulators) though it was okay to store solvent in a series of old 48,000 gallon above ground riveted storage tanks that clearly had inadequate secondary containment to prevent a spill into the river. It is to be noted that there were also other larger storage tanks at this site. This was all legal. There are very limited requirements for secondary containment on ASTs and no lifetime limits on equipment age. There are no state requirements for routine inspections for condition of equipment or adequacy of containment. Even at the time of the most recent sale there was an inappropriate level of due diligence performed to evaluate the risk.

Last week workers began dismantling the facility, but not before the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) had performed an investigation of the site. Jonnie Banks the team leader for the CSB reported their findings at a public meeting in Charleston, West Virginia. The CSB’s forensic inspection of the tanks on site found three tanks had been used to store MCHM, not just the tank that was the source of the observed leak last January. In draining the tanks the CSB found MCHM in three tanks despite incorrect paperwork. Extensive corrosion and pitting was found in all three tanks, two of the tanks already had holes. The largest hole found in the preliminary report was in the tank with the observed leak, but at least one of the other tanks had been leaking.

In their preliminary report, the chemical safety board found that the tanks had been leaking for an extended period of time that has not yet been estimated. Until the soil under all three tanks is tested it will not be definitively known the extent of the chemical release. Once the extent of the contamination is determined, and then computer modeling of the release needs to be performed so that better health impact studies can be performed. However, as the CSB pointed out there may not be adequate toxicology data on MCHM for an adequate determination of the long term safety of the drinking water supply though, American Water has not detected any MCHM in any of their most recent tests. Depending on the results of the computer modeling and the level of remediation required by the regulators, the residents of Charleston may turn out to be a study on long term low level exposure to MCHM.

The obvious cause of this chemical contamination of the Charleston drinking water was time and the failure to maintain and improve our infrastructure over time. Over 75 years the chemical tanks pitted and corroded and simply wore out and began to leak. There were inadequate regulations to ensure regular (or any) engineering inspections documenting the condition of the tanks. 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 addition, there are no regulations that limit the maximum life that a tank can continue to be used. This endangers our rivers, watershed and groundwater. Unless you have a permit to discharge to surface waters you are not required to have a spill prevention plan, but clearly these tanks had inadequate secondary containment. All fuel and chemical storage tanks whether aboveground or underground should be required to have adequate secondary containment and spill prevention plans.

Over time the tanks grew old and failed. Over time the industry standards for secondary containment changed, and the containment for these tanks was no longer up to industry standards nor adequate. Over time the city of Charleston grew and the water intake for the drinking water supply for the city was built within 1.5 miles of an old and operating chemical plant. Mr. Banks of the CSB was right when he asked how this happened. At least the public water supply should have performed a risk assessment of their raw water source, but that would have cost money for the rate payers and we like our water and sewer systems to be as cheap as possible. We assume safe, but we fail to maintain and improved our infrastructure.

Separately, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Charleston last Tuesday the creditors and insurers for Freedom Industries failed to reach an anticipated $2.9 million settlement in the 24 lawsuits against Freedom Industries. The company declared bankruptcy in January after the chemical release and contamination of the drinking water supply was discovered. For excellent coverage of this incident see the West Virginia Gazette  17 minute video and the work of Ken Ward, Jr.

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