Safety Board Head Downplays Update to W.Va. Spill Report

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By Sam Pearson

Oct. 28 — The U.S. Chemical Safety Board may not release an update to its report on a 2014 West Virginia chemical spill after all, its top official said Oct. 27, contradicting assurances the agency gave at a public meeting in Charleston last month.

“At this point, it is unlikely that there will be an actual addendum or supplement,” CSB Chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland told the Charleston Gazette-MailOct. 27.

Sutherland discussed the status of the Freedom Industries spill document after delivering a keynote address at a chemical safety workshop sponsored by the West Virginia Chemical Manufacturers Association, the American Chemistry Council and the National Association of Chemical Distributors in Charleston, W.Va.

The board launched the investigation after a spill of the chemical crude methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, on Jan. 9, 2014, left 300,000 people without water for days in the Charleston area. Residents affected by the chemical spill are close to reaching a settlement in a civil lawsuit, according to local news reports ( Good v. Am. Water Works Co. Inc., S.D. W.Va., No. 2:14-cv-01374, 1/13/14 ).

A supplement that addressed perceived shortcomings of the original report, if produced, could contain more recommendations to the Environmental Protection Agency or other parties on how to prevent a similar incident.

Broader Safety Recommendations Sought

At a public meeting in Charleston Sept. 28, board members voted unanimously to approve a final report on the chemical leak. The decision came despite public comments calling attention to what critics say was the report’s failure to make broader safety recommendations or more fully explain what happened.

At the time, Sutherland and other board members directed CSB staff to work on “a possible supplement or appendix to follow as we explore some of the issues raised,” Sutherland said at the time.

Sutherland said the CSB staff had finished reviewing public comments submitted since the report was approved, the Gazette-Mail report said. She added that CSB staff had recommended that the supplement was unnecessary, according to the report, and board members were likely to approve the recommendation soon.

In a statement to Bloomberg BNA Oct. 28, CSB spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said the agency’s staff have met with board members twice since the public meeting “during which the public comments were discussed in general terms.”

“The CSB’s board members are still reviewing the comments but have not made a formal decision or approval of an appropriate road forward, and will weigh the investigation team’s analysis of those comments,” Cohen said.

The board should decide on the issue “in the next few weeks,” at which point it will notify the public, Cohen said.

Criticism of Report

Outside researchers and chemical safety advocates say they were surprised by the CSB’s report.

At a public meeting in Charleston July 16, 2014, then-CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said the report was to “examine regulatory oversight of above-ground storage tanks in West Virginia and the U.S.”

More than two years later, the report failed to mention significant facts of the incident, and did not make any regulatory recommendations, advocates noted.

Andrew Whelton, an assistant professor of civil engineer and environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University who submitted a detailed critique of the CSB’s report, said he has heard from officials in the chemical and drinking water industries as well as government agencies who are also highly critical of the document.

“When they read the report, they said it was a piece of garbage,” Whelton told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 28. He added for the CSB to refuse to amend the report would be “an injustice to the taxpayers and the people of West Virginia and the scientific community.”

The report also did little to add to the public health questions that emerged from the incident, to the disappointment of local activists, though the agency had previously said it planned to review but not conduct new research.

Among other lapses, the report failed to note evidence that Freedom Industries stored a mixture of chemicals in the storage tank that ruptured containing more than the six chemicals listed in the materials safety data sheet for MCHM, Whelton said. The report also misstated an Occupational Safety and Health Administration study, Whelton said, and failed to cite significant academic research conducted since the spill.

Maya Nye, past president of West Virginia-based People Concerned About Chemical Safety, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 28 the CSB had an obligation to West Virginia residents to update the document.

If it backed out after first saying otherwise, Nye said, “It would just further reinforce the trust that was broken during this incident with the government.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Pearson in Washington at spearson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

Whelton’s response to the CSB report is available at http://src.bna.com/jI4.

The CSB’s report on the Freedom Industries investigation is available at http://src.bna.com/jJe.

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