Ashton Marra Published

2014 W.Va. Chemical Spill Report Leaves Questions Unanswered


The Chemical Safety Board voted Wednesday evening to approve the final report and recommendations that were the result of a more than two and a half year investigation into a Charleston chemical leak.

The leak, which was discovered January 9, 2014, spurred a tap water ban for more than 300, 000 West Virginians for as many as ten days.

It originated in a 46,000 gallon tank on the banks of the Elk River. Owned by Freedom Industries, a since bankrupted and dissolved company, the tank contained a coal cleaning chemical called MCHM. That chemical traveled downstream about a mile and a half to West Virginia American Water’s water treatment plant intake. 

The Report’s Findings


Credit @chemsafetyboard / Twitter
The two holes discovered at the base of a 46,000 gallon storage tank that leaked MCHM into Charleston’s drinking water supply.

Chemical Safety Board Chair Vanessa Allen Sutherland and lead investigator Johnnie Banks shared the report during a press conference Wednesday, stressing two major findings. 

The first of those, Banks said, was that the investigation found no evidence that the tanks located on the Freedom Industries site had been inspected in the ten years prior to the incident.

During Wednesday evening’s meeting, another investigator told CSB members the lack of evidence stretched back even further and that the tanks likely hadn’t been inspected in 30-40 years.

Sutherland added the second major findings was that the utility had no idea the chemical was located near its intake and had no plans in place to deal with a potential contamination.

“What happened here in Charleston was preventable,” Sutherland said, and requiring the inspection of storage tanks and proper response plans could have prevented the incident from ever occurring, or at least mitigated public harm, she added.

CSB Recommendations

The final report includes recommendations for both the utility and the manufacturer of the chemical. They include:

  • Communicate findings and lessons learned with all American Water subsidiaries
  • Conduct an inventory of hazardous chemicals near water treatment plants
  • Create response plans should a contamination of one of those chemicals occur
  • Update the MCHM safety data sheet with more complete information on its health impacts

​The CSB, however, does not have the authority to force either Eastman Chemical, the manufacturer, or American Water Works, the parent company of West Virginia American Water to implement any of its recommendations. That would take legislative action.


Credit Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
The tanks at the Freedom Industries’ site were demolished in 2014 following several state and federal investigations.

CSB investigators also shared a list of lessons that can be learned from the 2014 incident, including the importance of a mandatory aboveground storage tank inspection program and the creation of source water protection plans– both of which were a part of a comprehensive storage tank bill approved shortly after the Charleston spill.

Although lawmakers have since revisited that legislation and rolled back some of its provisions, a CSB investigator said Wednesday evening he still believed the bill would be effective.

The Unanswered Questions

Members of the public were invited to speak directly to the Chemical Safety Baord Wednesday evening before the final vote on the recommendations and many expressed concerns over the answer they did not receive from the investigation.

“How long was it leaking? How long were we drinking it in our drinking water, not knowing it?” Gary Zuckett, head of the West Virginia Citizens Action Group asked, but investigator Johnnie Banks told reporters earlier in the day they could not conclude when they leak actually began.

Kanawha Valley resident Phil Price, who told board members he has a Ph.D. in chemistry and has worked on chemical spill investigations in the past, pointed out that the report also does not include conclusive evidence about how much MCHM leaked into the water supply. Instead, they rely on Freedom Industries’ estimates.

Although the report was approved Wednesday evening, Sutherland said the investigators will be asked to look into some of the publics concerns and include them in an addendum to the final report.