Almost toxic, West Virginia

The storage tanks at Freedom Industries on the banks of the Elk River just east of Charleston, W.Va. Photo by Joel Achenbach

The storage tanks at Freedom Industries on the banks of the Elk River just east of Charleston, W.Va. Photo by Joel Achenbach

Parachuted into Charleston, W.Va. this weekend to do a story on the chemical spill. Literally I parachuted, it’s not a metaphor — tighter budgets in the newspaper industry mean we can only buy those discount airline tickets in which they drop you from a height as they’re flying somewhere else. Here’s my story. I’ll be talking about that this morning on the Diane Rehm show — link here, look later for the audio — along with some other guests, including one from industry, one from government and one from the environmental sector.

The situation in West Virginia seemed primed for a calamity. There’s a row of aging storage tanks full of chemicals just a little more than a mile upriver from the intake of the water supply run by West Virginia American Water Company. You don’t have to be the kind of worrywart who says “You could put an eye out with that” every time someone picks up a toothpick to realize that this invited calamity.

The chemical involved is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. I got some grief on Twitter for saying that this was “hard to pronounce” (even though I quoted the cabinet secretary in charge of environmental protection saying “I can’t pronounce the chemical name”). I’m not a chemophobe, but I submit that this is at the very least a mouthful. It’s not unpronounceable but it’s a workout. It’s not like saying “ammonia.” It’s also an unfamiliar chemical. You ever heard of it? Me neither. So I’m kind of with the cabinet secretary here, and the way I’d pronounce it, in casual conversation at least, is “4-methyl something.”

Although I hardly had an exhaustive examination of the area in my brief visit, one does note that it is heavily industrialized and the general design of the infrastructure seems optimized for the chemicals and industrial processes more than it is for the human beings who live there. The Kanawha is an industrialized river; George Washington, who used to own 17,000 acres along the banks downstream at the Ohio, was just a little ahead of his time. He never got a dime out of that property but now the river drains a good chunk of the Coal Industry and many chemical-producing facilities.

One thing I noticed in watching the briefings at the capital by the governor and other public officials is that in a crisis like this there’s a tendency of the officials to use the words “process” and “protocol” a lot, and congratulate themselves on what a fine job they’re doing. The BP oil spill was just like this. You had the Unified Command back then talking about how swimmingly things were going from a process point of view, as if the overriding desire of the public is to be assured that the interagency cooperation is splendid. No: People want to hear the words “It’s over.” And: “We fixed it.”

In West Virginia, it’s not over yet, but it’s getting there. They’re flushing the system. There’s no high-tech solution. They’re just gradually flushing this chemical out of the water supply. Ultimately it all goes down the river and to the Ohio, but it’s water soluble and at some point it’s so dilute it’s not a problem (at least that’s my understanding). It doesn’t appear to be very toxic, either, but it has that “low odor threshold,” which means a little bit goes a long way in terms of announcing its presence.

I wandered into the Freedom Industries facility — I wouldn’t say snuck in because I just drove through an open gate — and took a look around. It’s an aging industrial plant along the river, but because the chemicals were stored and not being actively processed, there wasn’t any inspection regime. According to the Charleston Gazette, which has had excellent coverage, two state workers sniffed out the leak Thursday after receiving complaints from the public. Here’s what they saw:

When state inspectors arrived at the Freedom Industries tank farm late last Thursday morning, they found a 400-square-foot pool of clear liquid had collected outside a white tank marked as number 396.

A 4-foot wide stream of the liquid — thicker than water, but not as heavy as syrup — was flowing across the bottom of a containment dike. The flow disappeared right at the joint where the dike’s wall connected to its floor.

Freedom Industries had set up one cinder block and used one 50-pound bag of some sort of safety absorbent powder to try to block the chemical flow, state Department of Environmental Protection inspectors say.

“This was a Band-Aid approach,” said DEP air quality inspector Mike Kolb.

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