Saturday, January 11, 2014

Yet More on Freedom Spill

For a chemical incident without deaths or serious injuries and no visible danger like flames or a smoke cloud, this story continues to have remarkable staying power. As you would expect the local Gazette-Mail has the most extensive coverage (though it doesn’t rank high in the Google listings, but Google doesn’t rate quality), but they have the advantage of being used to covering chemical incidents because of the concentration of large chemical facilities. Follow their editor Ken Ward (Kenwardjr ‏@Kenwardjr21h) on TWITTER® to keep up to date.

National news organizations are doing decent coverage as well (see here, here and here for recent news). Here is a brief summary of interesting information:

• There have been a number of law suits already filed; no surprise here. Unfortunately, one of the respondents is the water company, who appear (in my opinion) to have responded well to the incident.
• The US District Attorney has opened a criminal investigation. I hope they do a better job than was done in West, TX.
• The Chemical Safety Board has been asked to investigate the incident by local authorities and Sen. Rockefeller (D,WV). Since Rockefeller is the Chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee his request might carry some weight. There is nothing on the CSB web site about the accident.
• Most important to local residents; their water system is still contaminated.

Failed Containment

Bulk storage of chemicals is a fairly well understood process. Storage tanks are designed to hold chemicals with piping to fill and empty the tank and venting to allow the release of potentially dangerous pressure. The material that is used to make the tank (metal or plastic generally) is supposed to be selected with a view to compatibility with the material to be stored to ensure that the stored material does not react with the tank materials or promote the corrosion of the tank material.

Storage tanks are supposed to be placed within a containment area so that if there is a spill or a leak that material will be contained within a defined area for later recovery or disposal. A very typical containment area consists of a cement pad (a thick patio) with concrete or cinder block walls, but I have seen large dirt berms, plastic bins (really big ones) and even big ditches. A good containment system is like a car insurance policy; you pay your money and hope you never have to use it.

According to reporting by Ken West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) investigators found that 2,000 to 5,000 gallons of Crude MCHM (more about that later) had leaked out of a hole in the storage tank. It pooled in the containment area (as it is supposed to do), but that containment also contained holes so that the material leaked out of the containment area as well and then flowed down hill to the Elk River and then into the national news.

Apparently WVDEP began investigating an odor complaint received at 8:15 am. They tracked to odor back to the Freedom Industries facility and entered that site at 11:10 (remarkably quick which shows how responsive and practiced WVDEP is) and found the dual leak, reporting at that point that MCHM was in the river and nothing was being done to stop the flow.

Now I have been in a number of chemical facilities in the last twenty or so years, some good and some not so good. But in every single facility that I have been in the most important rule of spill response has always been “IT DOESN”T REACH THE FENCE LINE”. Now there are safety considerations and hazmat requirements and equipment constraints, but every effort will be made to stop the spill from getting off site. Someone is going to have to explain why it wasn’t so here.

I reported in an earlier post that the chemical spilled was 4-Methylcycloheane Methanol (MCHM). It turns out that it was actually Crude MCHM. What is the difference? Well almost any organic molecule made anywhere (in nature and man-made production facilities) is not the only product of the chemical reaction process. There are secondary reactions, byproducts that don’t get consumed, and raw materials that don’t get consumed. Where some level of purity is required the producer takes some sort of steps to purify the material and then disposes of the waste.

Needless to say, those steps cost money. If you don’t need pure material you don’t want to spend the extra money for the unneeded processing, so you ask for crude material; material before purification.

According to the Eastman Chemical MSDS (who may or may not have been the actual supplier of the Crude MCHM in the tanks at Freedom Industries) Crude MCHM consists of :

Weight %
68 – 89
4 - 22
4 – 10

Methyl 4-methylcyclohexanecarboxylate
Dimethyl 1,4-cyclohexane carboxylate
1 – 2

Note: The hazards listed are from documents related to the individual constituent (links provided) not the Eastman Crude MCHM MSDS. The ‘not currently manufactured’ listing indicates that the material is not on the TSCA inventory and it is not yet being commercially manufactured as a separate product in the US, so there is no real data available.

In any case what the folks at the water company are almost certainly looking for in their testing is MCHM and MMCHM (the top two items on the list). There is not currently a safety standard for how much material may be in municipal drinking water.  Reports state that there is no good way (at this water facility) to separate this material from water. So the facility will flush their lines (probably) until the material is no longer detected by their tests. Interestingly, there is nothing to stop them from declaring that the current levels are safe.

That is enough for now, more later.

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