Companies & Industries

A Second Chemical Spilled in West Virginia, and the Company Said Nothing Until Now


A storage tank with the chemical designation MCHM, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, W.Va., on Jan. 13

Photograph by Steve Helber/AP Photo

A storage tank with the chemical designation MCHM, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, W.Va., on Jan. 13

So now we learn that there was a second coal-processing compound mixed into the West Virginia chemical spill that contaminated Charleston’s water system. The good news is that the experts think—maybe—the second chemical wasn’t any more dangerous than the first. Small comfort to the 300,000 people who lost their water and the 300 residents who had to seek medical help. The bad news is the belated revelation reaffirms that the company behind the spill is truly out of control.

Freedom Industries, the chemical supplier whose leaking storage tank along the Elk River caused the federal emergency beginning Jan. 9, shocked West Virginia officials Tuesday by conceding that the contamination included a second compound, a mixture of polyglycol ethers known as PPH. The one we already knew about, a coal-cleaning substance, is called MCHM. They’re both nasty if swallowed, although thankfully no one died from the Charleston spill. Here is the latest alert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with some details about both chemicals (scroll down for PPH).

The most alarming aspects of the CDC update are that it was only on Jan. 21 that Freedom Industries informed state authorities about the presence of PPH and that the company is still not being fully forthcoming about the nature of the compound. Why the secrecy? Because Freedom Industries considers its PPH blend “proprietary.”

Let that sink in. The company that stored dangerous chemicals on a river bank, a mile and a half upstream from the intake to the region’s public water supply, wants to protect trade secrets about its polyglycol ethers recipe. In New York, we call that chutzpah.

Are the people who own and run this company aware that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston is conducting a criminal investigation? If not, their lawyers better tell them pronto. To put it mildly, the Freedom boys aren’t doing themselves any favors in how they’re handling their crisis. The Charleston Gazette, indispensable in its coverage of the spill, has more helpful background here.

As I discussed in an earlier post, Freedom’s owner, a Pennsylvania coal baron named J. Clifford Forrest, went to some trouble to disguise his ill-timed acquisition of the chemical company in late 2013. (Why the secrecy there?) Since the spill, Forrest has put his new corporate possession into bankruptcy proceedings as a tactic to freeze the two-dozen liability suits that have already been filed against Freedom. As best I can tell from the preliminary bankruptcy-court maneuvering and public filings, the same people who were running Freedom before Forrest took over remain at the controls now. That’s not reassuring.

I’ll be writing more about the men who started and have run Freedom Industries. Meanwhile, Forrest, who heads a coal company near Pittsburgh called Rosebud, needs to step forward, get control over his West Virginia chemical company, and have explained to him in clear terms what the heck has been going on in Charleston.

Barrett_190
Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador.

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