CHARLESTON, W.Va. — C.W. Sigman was among the first to be called to Freedom Industries on Jan. 9, 2014. The Kanawha County fire coordinator responded to an odor complaint from citizens who lived near the Freedom storage facility on the Elk River in Charleston.
“As soon as I hit Pennsylvania Avenue I could smell that licorice smell,” he remembered Thursday, the eve of the spill’s one-year anniversary. “We had dealt with that product before, so we knew pretty much what it was.”
Though familiar with the product, Sigman and other responders had limited information on how the chemical 4-MCHM would affect a water system. They also were in a difficult spot because Freedom Industries wasn’t forthcoming about how much material had leaked from the aging storage tank.
“Grant Gunnoe from the City of Charleston and myself asked this fellow from Freedom Industries how much had spilled. He said he didn’t know and he would get back to us,” Sigman said. “A year later and he still hasn’t called me back, even though I gave him my card and number to let me know how much had spilled.”
Sigman and officials from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection alerted West Virginia American Water Company the chemical was in the river. He said water company officials advised that their filters at the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant would be able to handle the material and separate it from the water.
They were wrong, and a nearly 10-day water emergency began.
Randy Huffman, secretary for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said getting accurate information from Freedom and passing it on to the public was difficult.
“The public wanted information, rightfully so. We wanted to make sure when we gave the information it was as accurate as we knew it to be,” Huffman said. “We weren’t fact-checking information. We just wanted to make sure the information passed to us wasn’t coming from the rumor mill.
“It was a nightmarish situation in that we were a conduit for passing information to the public and yet the information was changing and the credibility of that information began to come into question.”
Sigman said as difficult as it was during the following days, he’s grateful West Virginia American Water Company didn’t have to fully cut off the water and instead followed the state’s do-not-use order.
“It was a tough event, but on the other hand if we had lost the entire system and wouldn’t have been able to fight fires and flush toilets, it would have been a whole lot worse,” he said.
Huffman said there were still problems even after the spill was contained and a flushing program was promoted by WVAWC.
“As folks would get through the flushing process the smell was still lingering,” he said. “That ultimately created a problem, we just couldn’t overcome that,” he said.
Both Huffman and Sigman said the spill and emergency were a tough things to get through but some positive things have resulted.
Since the spill Sigman said there’s more attention on water-related incidents. A few months ago, when yellow paint found its way into the river from a storm drain, it was in actuality a minor release that posed no real threat. But Sigman said the response from emergency crews and water company officials and was overwhelming. He said since January 2014, every call involving water is taken far more seriously.
There’s now a state law in place to require above-ground storage tanks to be registered and inspected.
Said Huffman: “We have some protocols and processes in place to ensure that anything like this from happening again is extremely low.”