Last Thursday residents of Kanawha County reported a foul licorice odor in the air. State and local officials traced the smell to a leak from a 35,000-gallon above ground storage tank along the Elk River.The chemical had overflowed a containment area around the tank, then migrated over land and through the soil into the river. The leak happened about a mile upriver from the intake for a water supply.

After concluding the tap water was contaminated late Thursday afternoon, a stop-use warning went out to customers in 9 counties. The substance — 4-methylcyclohexane methanol – is water soluble.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the facility had not been inspected since 1991. The most obvious regulations that should have prevented such a release are those requiring Spill Prevention Containment and Countermeasures (“SPCC”) plans for  certain facilities with AST’s. at 40 CFR Part 112. However, hazardous substances or hazardous wastes that are neither oils nor mixed with oils are not subject to SPCC rule requirements under the Clean Water Act.

The West Virginia spill highlights the fact that chemicals can present an even greater hazard than oil when stored in large quantities above ground. Obviously a substance doesn’t even need to be oil, or even need to be otherwise hazardous for that matter, to pose a threat when stored in large quantities in an above ground tank.

On January 15, 1919 at about 12:40 p.m. an above ground tank ruptured, emptying its entire contents onto Commercial Street in Boston. Millions of gallons of sweet, sticky molasses, in a wave at least eight feet high, rushed through the streets at a speed of 35 miles per hour. It demolished entire buildings, upended vehicles and buried horses. People tried to outrun the torrent, but were overtaken and either hurled against solid objects or drowned where they fell. More than 21 were killed and about 150 injured.

Facilities should consider reviewing SPCC requirements and assuring AST and facility integrity since regulators and inspectors will certainly be doing so.