Alarmed by West Virginia's Ordeal

Neither federal nor state regulations currently apply to the above ground storage tank that leaked into the Kanawha Valley's water supply.

It's easy to regard the disastrous January 2014 leak of two industrial chemicals into the water supply for West Virginia's capital city as 300,000 other people's problem. But that's not correct, according to Rafael Moure-Eraso, who chairs the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Testifying Feb. 10 at a U.S. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee field hearing in Charleston, Moure-Eraso explained why the leak of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) and PPH from a Freedom Industries above ground storage tank is a much broader concern.

He said a certified inspector reviewed the tank terminals located in Charleston and Nitro, W.Va., in October 2013, and the inspector noted that chemicals in the tank that later leaked are considered "non hazardous" by EPA. This means they are not regulated by the federal Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure Program, known as the SPCC rule. The inspector's review also said the tanks had "been maintained to some structural adequacy but not necessarily in full compliance" with API 653, a standard published by the American Petroleum Institute that covers inspection, repair, alteration, and reconstruction of steel above ground storage tanks used in the petroleum and chemical industries.

"While EPA's SPCC rule outlines requirements for prevention and preparedness of oil discharges, such regulations do not apply to tanks containing 'non hazardous substances' like those found at Freedom Industries. Under existing state and federal laws these tanks, including tank 396, were not regulated by the state or federal government," Moure-Eraso told the committee. "While there are laws prohibiting polluting to waterways with a spill, there are not really any clear, mandatory standards for how you site, design, maintain, and inspect non-petroleum tanks at a storage facility."

He said CSB investigators have determined that a cinder block containment wall meant to contain a spill from tank 396 provided very little protection. The investigators will examine the tank closely and will evaluate the response to the leak after it was discovered, he promised. "We are particularly interested in the adequacy of information on MCHM and PPH hazards since the manufacturers' MSDSs repeatedly say 'no data available' for numerous toxicological properties, especially chronic toxicity," he explained. He said the tanks Freedom Industries was using at the site are more than 50 years old, adding, "Considering the best way to improve the safety of tanks at facilities that have similar tanks in use is an important question."

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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