Safety and OSHA News

Lack of maintenance, poor communication fouled water for 300,000

What can go wrong when an aboveground tank used to store harmful chemicals isn’t inspected for 10 years? 

Drinking water for 300,000 people can be contaminated, and hundreds end up seeking care for maladies ranging from rashes to nausea.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s (CSB) final report into the Jan. 9, 2014 release of chemicals into the water source for the Charleston, WV, area concludes Freedom Industries failed to inspect or repair corroding tanks.

The spill occurred not far away from West Virginia American Water’s intake in the Elk River about 1.5 miles downstream from the Freedom facility.

The CSB says the water company and local authorities were unable to effectively communicate the looming risks to affected residents.

About 10,000 gallons of crude methylcycloexanemethanol (MCHM) mixed with propylene glycol phenyl ethers (PPH) were released into the Elk River.

Part of the poor communication: Freedom initially reported only 1,000 gallons of crude MCHM had spilled. The presence of PPH wasn’t mentioned at first either.

Freedom’s inability to immediately provide information about the chemicals’ characteristics resulted in significant delays before a “do not use order” for water was issued to the public.

The CSB found the MCHM tanks weren’t internally inspected for at least 10 years. There was no comprehensive aboveground storage tank law in West Virginia. Months after the spill, the state enacted its Aboveground Storage Tank Act.

“My message here today is what happened in Charleston was preventable,” said Vannessa Allen Southerland, CSB’s chairwoman, in a press conference releasing the report.

Among the lessons learned highlighted in the CSB’s report:

  • Aboveground storage tank owners should regularly inspect and monitor the vessels and coordinate with nearby water utilities and emergency response organizations to ensure they provide adequate information about their stored chemicals for effective planning in case of a leak, and
  • Public health agencies should coordinate with water utilities, emergency response organizations and facilities storing chemicals near drinking water sources.

It doesn’t take much tank corrosion to create a situation like the one in Charleston. CSB investigators believe the leaked chemicals flowed out of the tank through two holes that were no larger than pennies. The chemicals flowed at about 11.5 gallons per minute, but the leak wasn’t detected for almost 24 hours.

The CSB’s lead investigator said regular inspections would’ve found the corrosion.

Also as a result of this investigation, Eastman Chemical has updated its safety data sheet for MCHM.

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