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What did West Virginia officials know?

West Virginia officials were aware of the hazardous chemicals at Freedom Industries' facilities before Thursday's spill, a newly released document reveals.
Local residents in Charleston, W.V. continue to arrive at distribution centers to load up on bottled water Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014.
Local residents in Charleston, W.V. continue to arrive at distribution centers to load up on bottled water Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014.

West Virginia authorities were aware of the hazardous chemicals stored at Freedom Industries' facilities long before Thursday's chemical spill, a newly released document reveals.

According to the Charleston Gazette, Freedom Industries, the company at the center of the massive spill, filed the required "Tier 2" form with the state back in February informing officials that thousands of pounds of the coal-cleaning chemical 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) were being stored in tanks at the Etowah River Terminal along the now-polluted Elk River.

Under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, Freedom Industries was required to alert the state of the chemicals at its facilities so authorities and emergency responders were aware of the potential risks. 

"Obviously, the whole idea of the chemical inventory reports is to properly inform local emergency officials about the sorts of materials they might have to deal with," chemical safety expert Fred Millar said, according to the Gazette. "It's just head-in-the-sand to be ignoring this type of threat."

At a press conference Sunday evening, Jimmy Gianato, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for West Virginia, confirmed that Freedom Industries filed the proper paperwork, but since MCHM was not listed as an extremely hazardous or toxic substance, it was not subject to the same regulatory requirements.

State authorities also pushed back on reporters questioning the timing of the leak and asking how 7,500 gallons of the chemical spilled so quickly from an "inch-sized crank" in the storage tank. "It had not been leaking for too much longer than before it had been discovered," Mike Dorsey, chief of the Department of Environmental Protection's Homeland Security and Emergency Response, said. "As you can tell, everybody could smell it and they could smell it downtown very quickly."

Randy Huffman, cabinet secretary for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said the tanks storing the MCHM were not inspected on a regular basis "because it's a storage facility only" and "not a process facility." 

"They simply brought the materials in and they stored them in the tanks and then shipped them out," Huffman said. "There's not an environmental permit at this time that was required."

Gov. Tomblin announced at Sunday's press conference that all schools in four of the nine affected counties would be closed Monday, but state offices would remain open and employees were expected to show up. "Things are looking right, they're trending in the right direction, but please don't jump ahead," Tomblin said. "The green light hasn't been given yet."

As many as 300,000 residents remain without potable water as officials continue to investigate how the leak occurred. The West Virginia Poison Center by Saturday morning logged nearly 800 calls from residents reporting symptoms of nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, and skin irritation.