January 13, 2014

Above, a recap video about the crisis produced by the Charleston Daily Mail summarizes the emergency response to date.

The chemical facility in West Virginia that poisoned drinking water for 300,000 people had not been visited by environmental inspectors since 1991, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday night. The facility owned by Freedom Industries Inc. spilled 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol through a one-inch hole in a tank last week. The feds don't inspect most above-ground chemical storage units, and West Virginia had not yet forced Freedom Industries to implement a groundwater protection plan:

"The storage facility owned by Freedom Industries Inc. on the banks of the Elk River was subject to almost no state and local monitoring, interviews and records show. The industrial chemical that leaked into the river, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, isn't closely tracked by federal programs. Before last week's spill, a state regulator said environmental inspectors hadn't visited the site since 1991.

Residents and businesses in the state capital of Charleston and nine surrounding counties have been without water for drinking, bathing or other uses since Thursday, when an estimated 7,500 gallons of MCHM leaked from a one-inch hole in a tank at the Freedom site, breached a containment wall and seeped into the river. A strict water ban was expected to remain in place for the time being.

Incidents on this scale are rare, and MCHM didn't appear to pose widespread immediate harm; about 10 people were hospitalized. But it showed that a little-known company could escape the notice of a host of oversight agencies and cause broad havoc.

Matthew Blackwood, chairman of a county-level group that develops local emergency-response plans, said Sunday the group didn't know that stores of the chemical were sitting upriver from the area's largest water-treatment plant.

"We definitely had not thought of water contamination on this scale," he said Sunday. "I don't want to overregulate private industry, but this does show that there are some chemicals that fall under the radar."

Blackwood noted that his group, the "Kanawha Putnam Emergency Planning Committee," works with major manufacturers, including DuPont & Co., Dow Chemical Co. and Bayer AG, in an area known locally as "Chemical Valley."

"It was the responsibility of Freedom Industries to prevent its hazardous chemicals from entering the public water supply," said Lisa Evans, chief administrative counsel of Earthjustice, an environmental group. Yet she said it is government's role "to establish rules that greatly reduce the likelihood of such devastating spills."

No doubt complicating efforts to obtain information about the threat to the public from Freedom Industries chemical spill, is its history -- It reportedly has existed in its current form for less than two weeks:

"On the last day of 2013, Freedom Industries, which distributes chemicals used in coal mining, merged with three other companies: Etowah River Terminal, Poca Blending and Crete Technologies, a Delaware company.

Poca Blending, in Nitro, and Etowah River Terminal, in Charleston, now comprise the two branches of Freedom Industries."

Details are still scant about the company's two founders, but here's what is known:

"Freedom Industries was founded in 1992 by President Gary Southern and Carl L. Kennedy II, according to filings with the West Virginia secretary of state.

Kennedy is still listed as "incorporator" on the secretary of state's website, but a woman who answered the phone at Freedom Industries said he left the company "years ago."

In 2005, federal prosecutors charged Kennedy with failing to pay more than $200,000 in income taxes, according to reports at the time. In 1987, he pleaded guilty to selling between 10 and 12 ounces of cocaine, according to reports."

Legal filings show that Southern is also the president of a company called Enviromine Inc., which supplies “environmental chemistries and services” to coal companies.

Also worth noting, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, has taken issue with labeling the spill as a coal industry issue:

“This is not a coal company incident; this is a chemical company incident,” Tomblin said.

And during an interview with The National Journal, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) fought back against what he called "attacks on the coal industry," noting that [...]"We have the life that we have because of the coal."

If you are a supplier for the coal industry -- which Freedom Industries is -- you are the coal industry.

While 16 percent of West Virginia remains unable to use their tap water for anything but flushing their toilets...the coal industry may well take a hit in the popularity polls.

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