For the West Virginia company that sullied 300,000 people’s drinking water to start the year, slip-ups like not reading emails and leaving the company chemical headquarters unattended have produced problems for months.
Contractor troubles, miscalculations and missteps have kept state environmental violations rolling in after Freedom Industries’ infamous chemical tank leak in January. Other state and federal investigations are still ongoing.
State environmental regulators aren’t rushing to slap penalties against the company, however.
The Department of Environmental Protection doesn’t want to drain Freedom of limited cash that could go toward extensive environmental cleanup costs and bankruptcy claims, said department spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater.
Freedom’s dwindling bank account almost certainly won’t pay out everyone seeking the profits and wages they lost while water was rendered unusable for four to 10 days.
An essential cleanup phase also looms for Freedom. The company plans to start tearing down its tanks Wednesday. Then it will work to strip contamination from its beleaguered Charleston site.
Here is a timeline of violations by Freedom and its contractors detailed by state regulators:
Jan. 9: A leaky Freedom tank let a coal-cleaning agent seep past a faulty last-resort containment wall into the Elk River. The chemical, crude MCHM, flowed 1.6 miles downstream and entered the public water supply at West Virginia American Water’s treatment plant. State environmental inspectors first showed up to check the site after neighbors complained of a licorice smell. A company executive who greeted the inspectors brushed off any cause for concern, until they asked to look at the tanks where the spill was obvious. Early estimates said 5,000 gallons spilled, but the company’s guess kept growing until it reached 10,000 gallons.
Jan. 13: More safety hazards surfaced after the state ordered Freedom to get its chemicals off-site. The company moved some substances to its nearby Nitro plant, where state inspectors said there were holes in a containment wall. The facility had no documentation of inspections or proof of employee training over 10 years. Freedom brought in double-walled tanks to hold the chemicals.
Jan. 21: Freedom Industries revealed that it didn’t spill just one chemical. Stripped PPH, another coal-cleaning substance, was also mixed into the leaky tank. State regulators said Freedom knew about the second chemical immediately and informed its employees the night of the spill. But none of the employees skimmed far enough down an email to see the note. Freedom President Gary Southern said it should’ve been brought to his attention, but wasn’t.
March 11: The company that hauled away crude MCHM for Freedom was cited in its own spill. Federal investigators were at Diversified’s St. Albans headquarters when they saw a sheen containing the chemical in a drainage system that empties into the Kanawha River. The company contained the chemical, and no public water utilities were immediately downstream. The federal groups were conducting a separate investigation.
June 12: In a rainy week, a collection trench at Freedom let stormwater pour into the Elk River below. The trench’s job is to catch chemical-laden water before it flows downhill into the Elk River. Freedom said its employees and contract workers all had left the Freedom site unattended, and the gate was unlocked. Though the trench contained the chemical, tests at the water treatment plant didn’t find any crude MCHM.
June 13: For a second-straight day, Freedom’s collection trench spilled into the river. The second overflow lasted 50 minutes and occurred during a thunderstorm. Tests at the water plant didn’t detect the chemical.
June 17: At the urging of the Department of Environment Protection secretary, Freedom Industries said it will drop its environmental contractor because of the stormwater spills. The Pittsburgh-based company, Civil & Environmental Consultants, responded that the spills were not its fault.