WHEELING - If West Virginia had storage tank regulations in place similar to those in neighboring Ohio and Pennsylvania, the Jan. 9 chemical spill that left 300,000 residents in nine counties without access to potable water for days may have been averted.
The spill released 7,500 gallons of a chemical known as MCHM from a Freedom Industries storage facility into the Elk River near Charleston, 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia American Water's intake.
On Monday, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced new legislation to implement an above ground storage tank regulation program. Neighboring states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania already regulate the storage facilities.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Poister said a massive leak at an Ashland Oil Co. storage facility on Jan. 2, 1988, in that state prompted lawmakers to enact rigid storage tank regulations.
Ohio also has rules, but nothing specific to tanks located along waterways that feed public water treatment facilities.
Poister said his state's regulations went into effect in August 1989 after the Ashland Oil leak, which sent 400,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Monongahela River and affected the drinking water for about 1 million residents in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.
Water authorities along the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers were able to shut off municipal water intakes until the spill dissipated near Cincinnati.
"We have a pretty comprehensive storage tank regulation in place," Poister said.
"It could happen again, but, hopefully, our regulations and vigilance are strong enough that we do not get that kind of impact."
He said every storage tank in the state must be registered and permitted to ensure that DEP inspectors know about them.
Poister said tank farms - a name given to areas where groups of tanks are located - must have a secondary containment system that will hold more than what is housed in the tanks themselves.
"They are designed to capture anything that leaks out and must hold 110 percent of the volume of the largest tank in the farm," he said. "DEP regulations require that all tanks are painted and have no visible signs of rust."
Poister said the ruptured Ashland Oil tank was old and a fault could have been spotted had there been a regular inspection and maintenance program at the time.
"Another Pennsylvania regulation provides that tank owners must have an approved preparedness, prevention and contingency plan and/or a spill prevention control and counter measure plan for each tank," he said. "Each plan has to be approved by DEP."
He said there have been no major spills forcing people to go into water conservation mode and no catastrophic tank failures since the regulations went into effect
Another area covered by regulations deals with impoundments.
"They are under a different set of regulations," Poister said. "They must be lined so the fluid does not get into ground water. Secondary containment requirements extend to the natural gas well pads.
"That is accomplished with a moat-like containment around the well pads."
He said DEP still encounters storage tank violations and those companies are subject to potential fines if the infractions are serious.
In Ohio, tank regulations fall under the state Environmental Protection Agency's Division of Drinking and Ground Waters.
"We have a storage tank inspection program, but not a universal program that specifically addresses tanks along shorelines or waterways," agency spokeswoman Linda Oros said.
She said the state's division of air pollution control does tank inspections primarily to monitor air leaks or gas breaches.
"We also check for obvious problems with liquid leaks and they are noted as an area of concern," she said.
Oros said OEPA inspects tanks used to store drinking water and tanks holding chemicals used to purify water at municipal plants.
"For large tanks near waterways, we have a berm requirement," she said. "It is more of a containment program that must hold more volume than the tanks hold. Petroleum-type tanks are monitored by the state fire marshal's office."