Testing after WV Chemical Spill

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 @ 05:10 PM gHale

There is a new program to monitor air quality during the remaining cleanup at the Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River in Charleston, WV, federal officials said.

The problem is, though, their effort suffers from a lack of data about potential health effects of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM). That was the same problem the feds had after the Jan. 9 leak tainted the drinking water for over 300,000 area residents.

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The Jan. 9 spill of a coal-cleaning agent prompted water-use restrictions for West Virginia American Water customers in nine counties. Over 300,000 residents ended up affected by the spill.

State officials discovered thousands of gallons of MCHM and other chemicals leaking Jan. 9 from a tank at Freedom Industries’ Etowah River Terminal. Some 10,000 gallons seeped under and through visible holes in the concrete wall meant to serve as an emergency barrier in the event of a leak or spill and ended up in the Elk River.

Nearly 10 months after the leak, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials were in Charleston to collect air samples that would give them a “baseline” for comparison to measurements they plan to take once Freedom begins remediation work to remove soil contaminated by the coal-cleaning chemical.

The EPA program, conducted in cooperation with state officials, comes about three weeks after some significant cleanup work — the dismantling and removal of more than a dozen chemical storage tanks — and involves an air quality “screening level” based largely on a much-criticized federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention number used for monitoring MCHM in drinking water contaminated by the leak.

EPA officials said they “anticipate” adverse health effects should not occur if MCHM levels in the air are kept below 10 parts per billion during the cleanup of contaminated soil at the Freedom site. The basis of that number is for protecting someone who suffers exposure to air with that concentration of MCHM in it 24 hours a day for up to 30 days, EPA officials said.

However, agency officials also said they lack adequate data for a “conclusive estimate of actual risk” of inhalation of the chemical, which leaked from one of Freedom’s tanks and into the Elk River just 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia American Water’s intake serving Charleston and surrounding communities.

The EPA calculated its air screening level using the same single animal study conducted by MCHM-maker Eastman Chemical and based on the 1 part-per-million water screening level the CDC gave state officials for judging whether water supplies were safe after the leak.

In a four-page outline of the screening level’s development, the EPA acknowledged its air screening level has many of the same “limitations and uncertainties” that created criticism of the CDC’s water screening level in the months following the leak: It’s based on only one toxicity study; that study examined pure MCHM, not the “Crude MCHM” mixture that Freedom used; and the study did not examine health effects of inhalation of the chemical.

“There are several limitations and uncertainties that went into deriving this value,” said Scott Wesselkamper, an EPA biologist who worked on the project. “We knew that going into the development of this value, but we did the best we could with the limited amount of information that we had on this particular chemical.”

Wesselkamper said the EPA team working on the MCHM issue did not use the work of the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project (WVTAP), the independent panel hired by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to investigate the leak’s impact on area drinking water and MCHM’s potential health effects. The EPA document also does not reference other studies of MCHM that have been done since the leak by scientists at several universities, including West Virginia University and Virginia Tech.

Friday morning, DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater joined EPA officials to show the sampling equipment located at Freedom and nearby, and to explain the new testing procedures and the air screening level. Several monitors ended up mounted on the Freedom facility’s fence, with others located on tripods in nearby yards or other spots.

The EPA plan involves taking air samples from at least eight locations at the Freedom site, and in nearby residential and commercial areas, and providing that data to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) so it can use it to make any changes in Freedom’s cleanup work needed to control air emissions. Initially, the EPA plans to conduct sampling for the first three days of the remediation project, and then reassess how often additional monitoring should be done.

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