CHARLESTON - Tucked between the Elk River and Charleston's hilltop airport, a tank cluster that leaked chemicals into the drinking water of 300,000 people shows few signs that it's on the brink of destruction.
Freedom Industries hit a deadline Saturday to start scrapping its chemical storage headquarters, a state order deemed both protective and symbolic. On Jan. 9, one of the company's 17 tanks oozed little-known liquids into the river below, and, eventually, into the water plant 1.5 miles downstream. Nine counties couldn't use their water for up to 10 days.
Crews have carved a small patch out of one tank to remove chemical remnants inside, which state regulators have counted as meeting the deconstruction deadline. The tanks will be stripped down and sold for scrap metal. And at a date yet to be determined, the Freedom Industries site will be rendered unrecognizable along the river it polluted.
"It's symbolic, certainly," said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman. "Not allowing a facility like that to ever be in that location again will also ensure that you won't have impacts from that site ever again to our water intake."
Public confidence remains shaky in the water supply and those tasked with protecting it. The disaster sparked sufficient outrage to prompt a rewrite of West Virginia law for owning aboveground storage tanks - particularly, ones close enough to a water supply to do damage.
Beverly Hager, who lives a block away from the tank farm, considered moving with her 6-month-old son and husband right after the spill. She said knocking down Freedom Industries provides some peace of mind.
"It shouldn't be that close to a water source to begin with," Hager said.
Federal officials are treating Freedom Industries like a possible crime scene and are still gathering evidence. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin assured safeguards are in place to collect what investigators need. FBI 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 last month.
The federal Chemical Safety Board has its own investigation.
Freedom Industries faces strict orders to let stakeholders know what they're doing on site. The company has to give a 48-hour notice to state environmental regulators and parties involved in various lawsuits and bankruptcy proceedings.
The World War II-era chemical tank that spilled had two holes, just a few millimeters each, and subpar last-resort containment walls. Nothing exploded or engulfed in flames, the usual reasons chemical facilities are ordered to be destroyed.
T2 Laboratories Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla. had to be decommissioned after an explosion killed four people and hospitalized 32 in 2007. So did Formosa Plastics, an Illinois facility that blew up in 2004, killing four employees and seriously injuring two others.
Conversely, the colorless pollutant crude MCHM, combined with stripped PPH, was noticeable in Charleston only because of its chemical black licorice odor.
"There are certainly other instances where facilities that were heavily damaged were dismantled after major accidents," said Daniel Horowitz, Chemical Safety Board managing director. "What is perhaps unusual here is that the facility is largely intact, albeit with significant environmental concerns that will need remediation."
The company's neighbors can expect one more strong whiff of licorice when serious tank deconstruction starts, said Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Aluise.
Millions of gallons of the company's chemicals are already gone, either sold off to competitors and suppliers or shipped to a coal facility in Pennsylvania. Freedom Industries' 51 employees are looking for new jobs, and the company says it won't be operational much longer after filing for bankruptcy Jan. 17.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., first publicly called for Freedom Industries to dismantle its Charleston location. The next day, the Department of Environmental Protection drafted the order, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made it official on Jan. 24. Freedom Industries immediately opted to comply.
Even after the Freedom Industries tanks disappear, West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said there is much left to learn. Changes to state law requiring more registrations and inspections will reveal the virtually unknown chemicals that threaten public water supplies, she said.
"It's only addressing one facility," Rosser said of the order to destroy the tanks. "We're going to learn a lot more in the weeks and months ahead about the tank farms that exist around the state."