Responding to the Freedom Industries chemical spill
On Tuesday evening, Freedom Industries and the DEP held a public meeting to discuss the remediation of the Freedom Industries site. But there didn’t seem to be too much real information to share. Freedom appears to be trying to minimize the cost of the cleanup because there is not enough money in Freedom’s bankruptcy estate to meet DEP Secretary Huffman’s earlier requirement that there should be no detectable MCHM left at the site. DEP gave Freedom permission to enter the DEP’s “voluntary remediation” program, which Freedom was desperate to do in order to avoid having to remove MCHM down to “non-detect” levels. Now Freedom must remediate the site according to a “risk-based” approach, which has never been defined. It’s not really clear what “risk-based” would mean in a context where the long-term health risks of the chemical are unknown.
Freedom and DEP have until the end of this month to agree on a plan for the cleanup of the site, unless they agree on an extension. One plan discussed at the public meeting was the idea of putting a cap over the soil so that rainwater runoff will not wash MCHM into the Elk River. DEP and Freedom officials did not provide any information about sub-surface movement of water through the site, so we have no assurance that a surface cap will really control migration of MCHM from the site.
When DEP and Freedom do come up with their plan, they should provide the public with real answers to questions like:
And, speaking of transparency, it would also be good to know at what level WV American Water’s new chemical monitoring equipment, due to be installed by the end of this month, can actually detect the various chemical constituents of MCHM.
Even after all that happened in January 2014, it is stunning to see that the officials at Freedom and the DEP still don’t seem to be taking seriously the fact that the former Freedom tank site lies 1.5 miles upstream from the only water intake for the only water treatment plant for 300,000 people.
On Tuesday, March 24th from 5-7pm at the Charleston Civic Center, consultants from Freedom Industries and the Department of Environmental Protection will host a public meeting about the remediation of the Elk River site.
Though the tanks have been removed from the site, the ground is, of course, still contaminated with MCHM and the other chemicals that leaked from the tank.
Last week, Freedom Industries was accepted into the DEP’s voluntary remediation program, which requires “risk-based remediation”, whatever that means, as opposed to the more expensive alternative of full removal of MCHM from the site. According to the Gazette, Freedom’s chief restructuring officer, Mark Welch, hopes that “there is little remediation left to do, other than put a cap over the site and establish some sort of environmental monitoring program.” The DEP, meanwhile, has repeatedly stated that it will not accept any plan that does not eliminate the risk of MCHM contaminating the Elk River.
Under the requirements of the voluntary remediation program, Freedom and DEP have until March 30th to agree on a timeline for sampling, risk assessment, and development of a workplan for the site – unless both parties agree on an extension. No such agreement has yet been reached.
Freedom’s chief restructuring officer told the Gazette’s Ken Ward that, at the meeting, Freedom will provide “further assurances on remediation, soil removal and chemical analysis.” Yet the DEP spokeswoman said, “[w]e can’t give any specifics about the plan for Freedom, though, because there isn’t one yet.”
Should be an interesting meeting.
Everyone said that having the water crisis happen during the legislative session last year was a great thing. I disagree.
The timing of the water crisis meant that public attention focused immediately on the legislature with the expectation that legislators would “fix” the problem. There was less discussion of the longer-term causes of the crisis, particularly the failure of existing regulations – a problem that has persisted in this state for many decades. Instead, the prominence of the legislative response meant that the dominant narrative was based on the idea that the problem could be fixed quickly through legislation.
Let’s take a step back and remind ourselves of the factors that contributed to this crisis. They include:
1. Lack of regulation of aboveground storage tanks
2. Weak enforcement of existing regulations, including the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.
3. An unsafe water system controlled by a holding company that is not interested in investing in West Virginia infrastructure
4. Lack of federal regulation of tens of thousands of chemicals that were grandfathered into the Toxic Substances Control Act
While passage of Senate Bill 423 is a step backwards as regards regulation of tanks, it has nothing to do with any of these other issues that were exposed during the water crisis. And, in fact, slow progress is being made on some other fronts. The Freedom Industries executives have been indicted. And public pressure pushed the Public Service Commission into opening an investigation into WV American Water; Advocates for a Safe Water System is continuing to build pressure on WV American Water to fix its system.
The legislature has proven that they are not going to be much help to us in fixing the problems that led to the water crisis. But there is still plenty to do.
On Saturday, the legislature passed Senate Bill 423. This bill weakened the Aboveground Storage Tank Act passed a year ago – reducing the number of regulated tanks from nearly 50,000 to 12,000; reducing the frequency of inspections; and allowing even more tanks to be exempted if they show compliance with existing DEP permits.
This rollback cannot be blamed solely on the Republican takeover during the November election; corporate influence at the legislature cuts across party lines. The former democratic Speaker of the House, Tim Miley, led the charge to rollback the Aboveground Storage Tank Act on behalf of the natural gas industry last summer. Industry knew last year that fighting the tank bill during the water crisis would have been much more difficult than waiting for public attention to dissipate and then gutting the bill later – as they did.
Almost regardless of the actual content of the bill, the symbolism of the Legislature rolling back the Aboveground Storage Tank Act – widely seen as *the* state’s response to the water crisis – really doesn’t look good. It signals that the legislature is not serious about addressing the underlying problem of under-regulation that led to the Freedom Industries leak in the first place.
In order to recover from last year’s water crisis, Charleston needs to use the crisis as an opportunity to transform the image of the city – from one that had its water supply poisoned to one that implemented changes to have some of the safest water in the country. That is the only way to regain the trust of the public and local businesses for the long haul. The city has not yet taken the initiative to do this. And the legislature is certainly not helping.
After the House Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 423 in a 13-12 vote last night, the bill now moves to the House floor for a vote.
The WV Safe Water Roundtable is encouraging people to write to Speaker of the House Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha) to urge him to kill the bill. Armstead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 304-340-3210. His office at the capitol is Room 228-M. You can also find and contact your delegate here.
Good news and bad news from the legislature yesterday. The good news is that the proposal to reclassify the Kanawha River as a drinking water source was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee without any harmful amendments.
The bad news is that the House Judiciary Committee narrowly passed Senate Bill 423, the bill to gut the Aboveground Storage Tank Act. The bill was passed without amendment, although one amendment – which would have increased the frequency of tank inspections and tightened the standards by which tanks could be exempted from the Act – was offered and narrowly defeated. The Gazette has more details about the bill here.
Here is the final vote count, 13 to 12, which breaks down neatly along lines of party and geography:
Against Senate Bill 423:
For Senate Bill 423:
Senate Bill 423 will now advance to the House floor.
One thing is clear — it wouldn’t have taken much for this vote to go the other way. Conspicuously absent was the voice of Mike Manypenny (former Democratic delegate and House Judiciary Committee member from the 49th district), voted out last November in favor of Republican Amy Summers, who voted to rollback the tank bill.
There will be a public hearing this Friday, March 6th at 8:30am in the House of Delegates Chamber on Senate Bill 423 – the bill to roll back last year’s Aboveground Storage Tank Act. As I posted last week, Senate Bill 423 has been amended since it was originally introduced. The amended bill still significantly weakens the Aboveground Storage Tank Act passed in response to the water crisis.
Last year, we were able to pass strong legislation because of the action of hundreds of people who sent emails, made phone calls, and showed up at the legislature. Come out on Friday to tell the legislature not to roll back the progress made last year.
Anyone can sign up to speak at the hearing. Here are some tips:
And here are some suggested talking points:
Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed an amended version of Senate Bill 423. We posted about SB 423 before - the original version would have completely gutted last year’s Aboveground Storage Tank Act, eliminating tens of thousands of tanks (including the Freedom Industries tanks!) from the regulations.
The amended version of Senate Bill 423 is not as destructive as the original bill, but is still less comprehensive than the original Aboveground Storage Tank Act. The amended version:
This amended bill is expected to pass out of the Senate this week and then be taken up in the House Judiciary Committee.
More than a thousand people in Kanawha and Boone counties have been without water for the past couple days, as a result of water main breaks on WV American Water’s system. Some businesses have also temporarily shut down. According to yesterday’s Daily Mail,
Although crews worked Monday to restore water service to more than 1,000 customers in Kanawha and Boone counties after weekend cold temperatures caused the widespread water main breaks, customers and city officials were losing patience.
Service was restored to “most” customers in South Charleston and “some” in Boone County late Monday afternoon, according to a press statement from West Virginia American Water.
“The customer outages we are experiencing are due to multiple water main breaks and high system demand that have drained water storage tanks and hampered recovery efforts,” West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said in the news release.
This all sounds very familiar.
We already knew that WV American Water’s Kanawha Valley system loses about 37% of its water — far higher than the Public Service Commission’s standard of 15%. Now, for two years in a row, we have seen severe weather (i.e. winter) impact quality of service and put customers at risk. Mr. McIntyre has repeatedly stated that the main breaks and leaks in the system on January 9th, 2014 contributed to the water company being unable to shut off its intake to let the MCHM spill pass without having the system go dry. Indeed, a number of the storage tanks in the downtown Charleston area were at or nearly empty on January 9th, meaning that they would not be able to supply water very long to customers if the intake were shut off.
Luckily, this winter we haven’t seen another major chemical spill into the Elk. If we had, it looks like our infrastructure would be just as unprepared.
The House Judiciary Committee voted today in favor of reclassifying the Kanawha River (from just above Belle downstream through Charleston to the Ohio River) as “Category A.” Reclassifying this stretch of the Kanawha would allow for the possibility of using it as a secondary water supply for Charleston and surrounding counties.
Based on previous experience, we had expected an amendment to be proposed that would weaken water quality standards, by eliminating Category A protections statewide. No such amendment was even offered. (Perhaps the explosion of an oil train into the Kanawha River earlier this week made it a bad week for offering amendments to weaken statewide water quality standards).
WV American Water president Jeff McIntyre stated that adding a second intake in the Charleston area – which would only be possible if that stretch of the Kanawha River is reclassified – would cost approximately $50 million. Adding an intake further upstream (above Belle) would cost $150 million. Alternatively, an independent assessment estimated that building a reservoir along the Elk would cost approximately $25 to $35 million.
The bill now passes to the House floor for a vote and then (if it passes) over to the Senate. We will keep you posted on future developments.