CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The facility whose chemical spill contaminated the water supply for 300,000 West Virginia residents was barely scrutinized, flying largely under the radar of government regulators who viewed it as a low-risk operation - but in reality, a problem at a key holding wall went undetected and unreported at Freedom Industries Inc.
The chemicals stored at Freedom's facility near the Elk River are not considered hazardous enough by regulators to prompt routine inspections. On a normal day, it never created chemical waste that went into the environment. As a result, the chemical storage terminal was a low priority for regulators, who must pick and choose how to allocate scarce manpower when enforcing environmental laws.
"I think that the loophole that this facility fell into is because it was not a hazardous material, it flew under the radar," said Randy Huffman, cabinet secretary of West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection, which enforces environmental laws.
Freedom's storage terminal holds millions of pounds of chemicals - including some used in coal processing - just a mile and a half upstream from pipes that take in water for a public drinking supply. The distance left little opportunity for chemicals to dilute in the event of a spill.
And those chemicals were stored behind a brick-and-concrete block dike that seems to have had structural problems - an issue the company apparently was aware of. A state official says the president of Freedom told regulators that $1 million had been put into an escrow account to fix the wall that ultimately failed to hold Thursday's spill, which resulted in a five-day ban on tap water. The ban was lifted for some areas this afternoon.
State environmental officials would not have seen the dike problems - they say they never had reason to inspect the site.
Containment dikes are supposed to be a last line of defense against spills, preventing chemicals from flowing into the surrounding environment. Concrete containments are susceptible to cracking over time and need to be maintained, said Susan Burns, a professor of civil engineering at Georgia Tech. She was not familiar with the layout or equipment at Freedom Industries.