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Senate Commission Begins Leak Investigation

Ashton Marra

The Joint Commission on State Water Resources held its first hearing Friday morning as it’s investigates last week’s chemical spill into the Kanawha. This week, they heard from a state water quality expert and a union leader about where the state’s regulations on containment are lacking.

Senate Majority Leader and the Commission’s co-chairman Senator John Unger introduced legislation to manage and protect the state’s water resources Thursday, but Friday, his commission was focused on getting answers about how to prevent spills from happening in the future.

“The purpose of this investigation is to actually see what happened, how it happened, and look at ways to prevent such a spill from ever happening again here and throughout West Virginia,” he said as the meeting began.

“I think what this particular situation has done for us is it was a wake up call. It showed that are water resources are very vulnerable particularly when looking at drinking water for our citizens, our businesses and our farmers.”

Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz with the West Virginia Water Research Institute was the first to testify, saying before the leak, he had never heard of this chemical known as crude MCHM.

He began researching the material safety data sheets, just like the National Guard, Centers for Disease Control, and many others did to look for health hazards linked to its consumption. What he did find was information about the chemical’s molecular makeup.

“It is described as an oil,” he said. “It’s also an alcohol, but it’s described as an oil and that’s important as we get into the regulatory framework.”

Important because Ziemkiewicz says oil storage is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency in what are called Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure, or SPCC, plans.

The plans are regulated under the Clean Water Act. They require facilities storing any type of oil to have a secondary containment structure surrounding each tank.

Companies must also file a description of the material in each tank, have an emergency response plan in case of a leak, and have regular inspections and reports filed.

While the state of West Virginia must comply with the federal Clean Water Act, the EPA is the agency that regulates and maintains these SPCC plans.

Lawmakers questioned the water specialist if some kind of technology existed that could detect these chemicals in the water and notify the water company when present in the river, but Ziemkiewicz said if the proper spill management procedures had been in place, whether enforced by the state or federal government, the water company could have reacted more quickly to the spill and possibly prevented the contamination of the drinking water.

“Let’s just go back to the spill prevention procedures,” he said. “If in fact each water system had an indication of what was upstream of them and had an emergency response plan in place and knew what chemicals to look for and they were notified of the leak, there’s a lot of if’s now, they would know what to analyze and would know when to shut off their intakes.”

“In other words, we wouldn’t be relying on the water system itself to simply monitor every gallon of water that goes into the system. That would be extremely expensive.”

Brian Stanley with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades told lawmakers the chemical leaked from a hole in the bottom of the tank which could have been cause by corrosion.

Stanley explained tanks storing corrosive chemicals are not required to be painted with a protective coating under state law, but many site owners choose to have it done to protect their equipment and prevent leakage.

He said tanks owned by state entities, like water storage tanks, are required to be inspected every four to five year, but that’s not the case with private organizations.

“Some states have their own separate rules where they say tanks have to be inspected every five, six years,” Stanley said. “That’s up to the states to set that. Currently, here it’s not that way.”

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