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Kittanning firm to ship chemical that tainted W.V. water to Pennsylvania

Debra Erdley
| Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, 12:00 p.m.
Work continues on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, around a storage tank with the chemical designation MCHM, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, the chemical that leaked into the Elk River, at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, W.Va.
Work continues on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, around a storage tank with the chemical designation MCHM, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, the chemical that leaked into the Elk River, at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, W.Va.

Thousands of gallons of a chemical that fouled public water service for 300,000 people in West Virginia are headed to Pennsylvania under the radar of regulators and residents.

Environmental regulators here were unaware on Wednesday of the plan to move 3,500 gallons of crude MCHM, a coal-washing chemical, and likely won't be told how it will be shipped, or where the company, Freedom Industries, intends to store it, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said.

It's unclear whether its shipment or storage would pose any threat to Western Pennsylvania rivers, which provide drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people. At least two coal-washing plants are near the Allegheny River in Armstrong County.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection warned that Freedom Industries would transport the chemical that spilled into West Virginia waterways on Jan. 9 to “a coal facility in Pennsylvania” in coming weeks. The agency said it could mean unsavory licorice smells for neighbors.

A woman who answered the phone in Freedom's office in Charleston, W.Va., declined to comment.

Freedom's parent company is owned by J. Clifford Forrest, who runs Rosebud Mining Co. in Kittanning. Asked whether the chemical is being shipped to any of Rosebud's coal preparation plants, Rosebud Executive Vice President Jim Barker said he was unaware of any shipment.

“I know MCHM was used by many different coal-processing plants throughout the United States. Whether any is being shipped to us, I don't know. So I have no comment,” Barker said.

Myron Arnowitt, state director of Clean Water Action, said regulators should be concerned about the possibility of a company storing toxic chemicals near a river.

“It's a real problem that drinking water utilities do not know about these chemicals that are stored near them. There are a lot of big causes for alarm, and the fact that the environmental rules do not consider drinking water a priority is a problem,” Arnowitt said. “Our organization had proposed legislation some years back to require buffer zones to protect drinking water from these hazards,” but lawmakers never gave the legislation a hearing.

West Virginia environmental regulators ordered Freedom to remove all chemicals from the Charleston site where the chemical leaked into the Elk River, causing people in nine counties to avoid using tap water for drinking or bathing for days. Hundreds of people received hospital emergency treatment for flu-like symptoms and rashes believed to be related to the spill. The spill cost businesses $61 million, the Marshall University Center for Business and Economic Research estimated.

When Freedom began transferring the chemical to Nitro, W.Va., state officials declared that facility unsafe and ordered Freedom to fix its issues or find a different facility.

John Poister, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's Southwest Regional spokesman, said the agency did not know Freedom was moving the chemical to Pennsylvania.

“I don't know that we'd be notified, nor would we have to be notified because that is not a chemical we ordinarily track,” Poister said.

He said MCHM is recycled on site at coal-washing facilities.

“It is not discharged into water,” Poister said.

He speculated that the chemical is headed for one of Rosebud's coal-washing facilities. Rosebud has multiple facilities in Armstrong and Clearfield counties, though Poister could not say which plants use MCHM.

“They've been using that chemical for some time,” Poister said DEP inspectors determined.

The West Virginia spill prompted concern from some Armstrong County residents who live near a Rosebud coal preparation facility in South Buffalo.

Township Supervisors Chairman Terry Van Dyke said he was unaware of any problem with chemicals Rosebud uses at its McVille coal preparation plant.

“We're in a good working relationship with Rosebud,” he said. “But I think if those chemicals (crude MCHM) are there, it should be brought to light.”

Heidi Powell, who lives along the Allegheny River about two miles downstream from the McVille prep plant, said residents are concerned about what happened in West Virginia.

“While I support coal as an energy source, I am equally concerned about the potential of these chemicals being in our neighborhood and in our water supply and the impact on our families, residences and home values,” said Powell, a real estate agent.

David J. Bayless, director of the Ohio Coal Research Center at Ohio University, said MCHM has been used for at least 15 years in coal preparation, which separates coal from rock. He said the process, known as froth flotation, uses MCHM to remove impurities from coal, providing a cleaner-burning product for power plants.

An estimated 7,000 gallons of the compound seeped from a tank upstream of a public water plant that serves the Charleston area.

West Virginia environmental officials quickly learned that little is known about MCHM's toxicity. The chemical, manufactured by Eastman Chemical Co., is among tens of thousands of long-used industrial compounds whose uses were grandfathered under a 1976 federal law that tracks hazardous substances.

Citing public health concerns, the National Science Foundation last week awarded rapid response research grants to scientists at three universities to get a better understanding of the chemical's properties.

“This is one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century. In instances such as this, where the situation is still developing and public health is involved, timing is everything,” said William Cooper of the foundation's division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or Staff writer Mary Ann Thomas and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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