Citing “a gap in the regulatory framework that fails to cover aboveground storage tanks,” the chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has urged lawmakers at a congressional field hearing in Charleston, West Virginia, to approve legislation to prevent major chemical spills.
CSB Chairperson Rafael Maure-Eraso’s remarks came on February 10, a month after some 10,000 gallons of 4- Methylcyclohexane methanol leaked into the Elk River from a storage tank situated upstream from the capital city’s water treatment plant. The river is a tributary of the Kanawha River, which supplies water for 300,000 people. Residents were told not to drink the water or use it for cooking or bathing. The directive was lifted after about two weeks.
“While there are laws prohibiting polluting to waterways with a spill, there are not really any clear, mandatory standards for how you site, design, maintain and inspect non-petroleum tanks at a storage facility,” Maure-Eraso said. Tanks at the leak site were not covered by either state or federal regulations. He called for “urgent steps” to address the regulatory gap.
Noting that CSB has investigated previous hazardous releases in the Kanawha Valley over the past five years, Maure-Eraso revisited the agency’s previous recommendations that county officials, working with the state, establish a hazardous chemical release prevention program to enhance safety and optimize emergency response. The program would operate under a new industrial authority funded from fees assessed on the companies processing or handling potentially dangerous chemicals. While officials considered the recommendation, it was not adopted for several reasons, including funding, he stated.
CSB’s investigation into the accident will include inspection practices, state and federal oversight of similar tanks, industry best practices and response to the emergency, in addition to examining the tank and containment structure. Maure-Eraso said a particular focus would be on the adequacy of toxicity data on the chemical that was available to emergency responders.
Maure-Eraso recommended that any legislative reform consider the hierarchy of controls, an effectiveness rating used to control hazards and the risk they represent. Under that approach, the first question to ask in this situation, he said, is “Do the tanks need to be near the water supply?” Unfortunately, in this case, “the answer would have been ‘no,’ ˮ he said.