Feds prepare to remove chemical spill evidence

CHARLESTON – In two weeks, federal investigators will start carving up chemical tanks for evidence in a spill that tainted 300,000 West Virginians’ water supply.

The Chemical Safety Board plans to begin removing slices of three Freedom Industries tanks in Charleston on April 24, agency spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said. It will take 11 days to secure the chunks of metal using high-pressure water jets, according to Freedom bankruptcy documents. Then they will be shipped off for a six-month lab work contract.

Each tank contained the same coal-cleaning chemicals. On Jan. 9, one of the tanks leaked the liquid into the Elk River, spurring a ban on tap water across nine counties for four to 10 days. The board said the tank contained at least two holes believed to be caused by corrosion, bankruptcy documents show.

Officials have said a cracked last-resort wall didn’t contain chemicals that oozed from the tank, which dates to the World War II era. The board said it also suspects more holes exist in the roofs of the tank. Complaints about the chemical’s pungent black licorice odor occurred before the January spill.

Investigator Johnnie Banks has said it will likely take a year until the board produces a report with findings. The panel may set up public meetings to share periodic updates.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and state attorney general are also investigating the spill. So is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which should finish its work this summer, said spokeswoman Leni Fortson.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents scoped out the faulty tank from the inside on Jan. 28, and visited the company’s chemical hauling contractor, Diversified Services, on March 7. Some witnesses appeared in front of a grand jury in February.

Freedom, which has 51 employees, is under state orders to start stripping down its tank site in Charleston.