U.S. Chemical Safety Board Details Investigation for Lawmakers

Jan 24, 2014

The Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources held its third hearing related to the Kanawha Valley chemical leak Friday, receiving testimony for the first time from those conducting the on-site investigation.

Chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board Rafael Moure-Eraso explained his team of four investigators is in the preliminary phases in an investigation that could take up to a year to complete.

Lead Investigator Johnnie Banks told lawmakers the CSB is consulting with experts in the area of tank design and construction who will soon inspect the tanks on Freedom Industry’s site. They’re reviewing company documents on the maintenance and inspection of the tanks as well as the provided Material Safety Data Sheets detailing the toxicity of the chemicals.

The MSDS contained very little information about MCHM when the spilled occurred and even less about PPH- a second chemical also in the tank revealed only this week by Freedom officials.

Banks called the lack of information shocking and Chairman Moure-Eraso said a recommendation to deal with those sheets will come from their investigation.

Chemical Safety Board Investigator Johnnie Banks responds to questions of the Joint Commission on State Water Resources.
Credit Ashton Marra

“The government obligation is to find out what is there, but the primary obligation is the people that is getting this chemical into commerce to provide the necessary toxicological information and that is not happening,” Moure-Eraso said. “That is something we’re going to be looking at looking very carefully.”

Moure-Eraso was asked how much he knew about the chemical PPH and its long term health effects, but he replied he knew very little.

“These chemicals are created in the industry to be reactive and to do chemical work. Even in small quantities, they affect human beings, they have the potential to affect human beings and we should be worried about it,” he said. “Definitely, they should not be in drinking water period, at any level.”

Banks told the committee, so far, their investigation has revealed the leaky tank was built before World War II, which Senator Ron Stollings said is something that’s not uncommon for infrastructure not just across the state, but across the country.

“There are water lines throughout my area, particularly southern West Virginia that were put in during the early 20th century,” he said. “I was going to bring up that this can not be a totally isolated incident to West Virginia. This can be a wake up call for all the other states.”

This is Banks’s third investigation in the Kanawha Valley. His first came in 2008 when a tank holding pesticides exploded at the Bayer facility in Institute. The second in 2010 after a highly toxic gas was released at the DuPont facility in Belle killing an operator, prompting Delegate Mike Manypenny to ask if the problem is systemic in the Kanawha Valley.

 “The fact that we have been here over the past five years three times for events where mechanical integrity has been prominent in each of those cases that that is a fair statement,” Banks replied, “but I wouldn’t consign it just to West Virginia or the Kanawha Valley.”

General James Hoyer of the National Guard updated committee members on the testing still being conducted throughout the distribution system.

 Hoyer said Guard members are now testing for MCHM at 10 parts per billion, a fraction of the 1 part per million safety level initially set by the Centers for Disease Control.

“Testing at the 10 parts per billion level is equivalent of looking for 6 drops of water in a 7500 gallons milk tanker. So, that’s the level of intricacy of the process,” he said.

Hoyer said there have been no detectable levels of the PPH in the system.

He added his interagency team says it will take another week of testing to ensure they meet the new testing level criteria throughout the entire system.