by Ken Ward, Jr., cross-posted from Sustained Outrage: A Gazette Watchdog blog

Last August, Kanawha Valley residents lived through the spectacle of their public safety officials practically begging the folks who run the Bayer CropScience chemical plant to tell them what was on fire, and what toxic chemicals residents nearby were being exposed to.

Remember the exchange between Metro 911 officials and the plant?

“Well, I can’t give out any information, like I say, we’ll contact you with the, with the proper information,” a plant gate worker who identified himself only as Steve told a 911 dispatcher.

Kanawha County officials and local firefighters said the situation led to “chaos” in their efforts to protect the public.  Political leaders demanded improvements, and we are promised they’ve been made.

But have reforms been made? Will the public be better served the next time there’s a big plant accident?

Well, let’s consider last evening’s apparent spill from Dow Chemical’s South Charleston plant. We had a small item today in the print edition, and online, about this incident:

Kanawha County emergency officials and officials for Dow Chemical are investigating reports of a mysterious white foam in the Kanawha River behind Dow’s South Charleston plant.

A Metro 911 dispatcher said calls about the foam started coming in to the 911 center and to Dow about 6:30 p.m.

Later, another Metro 911 dispatcher described the foam as an accidental release, and said it posed no danger to the public.

When I came in this morning, I started making calls to try to figure out what had happened.

First, I called at left a message at Dow’s corporate public affairs office. You see, Dow doesn’t like local folks at the plant to talk to the media. Everything gets kicked up to their corporate headquarters, in Midland, Mich.  More on what I learned — and didn’t learn — from Dow in a bit …

Next, I got in touch with the state Department of Environmental Protection. Initially, they didn’t have any more information than my coworkers on the night shift got last night from county emergency dispatchers. Later, DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco did call back with some more information, but not until after Dow issued a press release (again, more on that later).

Finally, I called Dale Petry, Kanawha County’s emergency services director. He’s supposed to be the county ’s main guy on this, the fellow that folks like Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper point to as the one they expect to make sure the public is protected.

Petry told me all he know was that a “minute amount of hydrocarbon” was released into the Kanawha River.

OK, first of all, what hydrocarbon? That term applies to any one of many compounds made up entirely of hydrogen and carbon. More importantly, how much of whatever hydrocarbon was released? That’s pretty important to know. How can anyone say the release wasn’t dangerous if they don’t know how much was involved?

I asked Petry about the holes in what he knew, and he said he would have someone from Dow call me. Wait a second … a government official is referring me to the company to answer questions? Why doesn’t the government official know the answers?

It turns out that Petry doesn’t necessary dig into all of that. He told me the first thing he does when he hears about a chemical accident is ask the company “is this going to affect the public?”

“I have to take their word for something,” Petry said. “They know more about the chemicals than we do.”

Huh?

Shouldn’t Petry make that call? Why wouldn’t government officials ask the company what was released, and how much, and then compare that to legal “reportable quantities” and other data, and  come up with their own conclusion about whether the public was in harm’s way and should be protected? Isn’t that why the county is getting new computer leak-mapping system, as part of a settlement between Bayer and the U.S. EPA over multiple environmental violations by the company?

Sure, maybe this wasn’t a huge fire with a toxic cloud hanging over the community.  But shouldn’t emergency response and environmental officials ask the same questions about all of the accidents at the plants, just to make sure? Wouldn’t the practice be good for them?

And why the heck does the media have to jump through so many hoops to find out what Dow spilled into the river?

Nobody from Dow called the Gazette back until 3:45 p.m. today, and even then, company spokesman Harold Nicoll in Midland, Mich., said he wouldn’t answer any questions. He would only e-mail us this prepared statement at 4:20 p.m.:

At approximately 6:50 p.m. on Thursday, Union Carbide’s S. Charleston Operations were notified by Kanawha County Metro 911 that a passerby had noticed foaming around one of our water outfalls into the Kanawha River. 

Foaming around the outfalls (there are several) is not uncommon due to the vigorous mixing that occurs and the nature of the extremely small amounts of materials that are present in the outfall.  The foaming is controlled by the addition of anti-foam compound and in this instance not enough anti-foam added to the outfall.  When notified of the issue, more anti-foam was added and the foaming immediately decreased.

All of the outfalls are permitted by the WV DEP and are monitored using sophisticated analytical instrumentation.  Our monitoring detected no unusual discharges during the time of the foaming.  Subsequent follow-up with all of the manufacturing operations on site also indicated nothing unusual occurring during this time frame. 

When I talked to Kathy Cosco at DEP, she confirmed the basic facts of this version of events (though without the editorial comments about how well monitored the Dow plant is, etc.).

But Cosco added this bit of information: DEP is issuing a Notice of Violation to Dow, for not reporting this incident itself to state regulators. Rather than hearing about it from Dow, DEP learned of the problem after some residents called 911, and Metro dispatchers called DEP.

But remember, Dale Petry trusts the companies to tell him when there’s a threat to the public.

Ken Ward, Jr. is a staff writer for the Charleston Gazette, contributing to the print and on-line editions of the newspaper and also to its blogs Coal Tattoo: mining’s mark on our world and Sustained Outrage.

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