Feds Arrive In W.Va. To Probe Chemical Leak

A team of federal investigators from the Chemical Safety Board is in West Virginia to look into that massive chemical leak into the Elk River that contaminated the water in nine counties. Local authorities say the water quality is improving but they're not ready yet for a large-scale lifting of water bans. The leak originated from a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries.

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Federal investigators from the Chemical Safety Board arrived in West Virginia to examine that massive chemical leak into the Elk River. Tens of thousands of people still cannot drink their household water after this leak from a tank owned by Freedom Industries. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has been following this story and tracking some of the history in recent years of chemical spills. Hi, Danny.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what happened last week?

ZWERDLING: Thursday morning, apparently a chemical used in the coal industry leaked from a tank, an above-ground storage tank. Thousands of gallons leaked on to the ground, then leaked into the nearby river. And lo and behold, oops, it turns out the intake pipes for the water treatment plant for the area are right downstream.

INSKEEP: Now, this is bad enough, but you've tracked more than one problem over the years with above-ground storage tanks, including a huge disaster in Texas.

ZWERDLING: You know, federal statistics suggest that there are more than 2,000 leaks every year from above-ground storage tanks. And just last April you might remember, right - in West Texas, a fertilizer tank exploded, still nobody knows exactly what happened. But that was a much more serious case where 15 workers were killed, more than a 150 injured, more than 150 buildings, including homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.

And the troubling thing about all this is that the Chemical Safety Board keeps investigating some of the worst above-ground storage tank leaks and explosions around the country. And they keep finding some of the same things.

INSKEEP: Well, let's make sure we understand what that is because we're talking about different materials. You mentioned fertilizer. It was a substance used in coal mining in West Virginia. There are other things. Is that the pattern?

ZWERDLING: So it turns out that there are many, many laws that govern the storage of chemicals and the use of chemicals at these facilities. There are many agencies that have some sort of overview. The Chemical Safety Board keeps concluding that the problem is that when you look at the fine print of all these laws, there are lots of gaps, not loopholes necessarily, just gaps.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to regulate the storage of above-ground tanks with oil. Well, in 2001, more than 1 million gallons of sulfuric acid spilled from an above-ground storage tank in Delaware. People were injured. The community was contaminated.

INSKEEP: EPA have nothing to do with it.

ZWERDLING: Because it was not oil. In 2008, 2 million gallons of fertilizer spilled into a river in Virginia. And again, EPA had nothing to do with it. And I could talk about the Labor Department has some overview. The Homeland Security Department has some overview. But they're - they don't coordinate very well. And the Chemical Safety Board keeps saying we've got a problem here.

INSKEEP: And do these problems apply to this latest spill in West Virginia?

ZWERDLING: I talked to a top official at the Chemical Safety Board yesterday. And he said, you know, it's too early to tell specifically, but, yes, you know, the themes definitely apply, probably. In fact, three years ago the Chemical Safety Board issued a report on another accident involving above-ground storage tanks in West Virginia. This had to do with an accident in 2008 at a Bayer pesticide plant. Two workers were killed.

And the Chemical Safety Board report three years ago said to West Virginia, look, no matter what the federal government is or isn't doing, you guys - you guys need to have your own very tough program to inspect and make sure that above-ground storage tanks are safe and inspect these above-ground storage tanks, make sure the companies are doing what they have to do, make sure there's, you know, all kinds of emergency plans. Anyway, very tough recommendation.

INSKEEP: Well, what did West Virginia do?

ZWERDLING: Nothing.

INSKEEP: And now we have this West Virginia spill. Let me just ask you, Daniel Zwerdling, regardless of who regulates chemical tanks in advance - storage tanks in advance, are there laws that provide consequences? If you pollute, you get in trouble.

ZWERDLING: The Clean Water Act says, if you - if you, company, you know, you violate the law, the Justice Department can haul into court, and they do haul people into court. But public health specialists and even some government officials tell me it's not much of a deterrent.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Zwerdling, thanks very much.

ZWERDLING: Thank you, Steve.

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