Uninspected tanks of toxins 

click to enlarge Jeanette Neagu - MARTIN BUECHLEY
  • Jeanette Neagu
  • Martin Buechley

"She's an environmental Paul Revere," Jeanette Neagu's husband George says, with genuine admiration in his voice. We're sitting in the Neagu's living room, on the west side of Michigan City, Indiana. There's a large screen television mounted in the corner. Jeanette is about to show me the PowerPoint presentation about aboveground chemical storage tanks that, two days before, she presented at a National League of Women Voters conference in Dallas, Texas.

Jeanette Neagu was born in Chicago in 1939. When she was 15, her parents moved her and her three siblings to Ogden Dunes in Indiana, on the Lake Michigan shore. Dorothy Buell, the founding mother of Save the Dunes, the organization that, with the help of Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, led the charge to create the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, lived across the street. The families became friends; Jeanette became an activist.

When Jeanette was a teenager, she launched her own Save the Dunes petition drive, standing outside Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History with a clipboard and a postcard showing the Indiana lakeshore. "I got thousands of signatures," she laughs, "but they were from Hong Kong and Norway. I had a worldwide campaign!"

Jeanette testified before Congress on the importance of the Dunes when she was 20. Eventually she would serve as Save the Dunes' president. Now she acts as Natural Resource Chair for the League of Women Voters of Indiana.

It was in early January of this year that Jeanette, along with the rest of us, started getting the news about a massive chemical spill in the Elk River running through Charleston, West Virginia. "That was a shock," she says. "Three hundred thousand people can't use their water? My sister used to live in West Virginia, so I've been through that area many, many, many times."

The spill was first noticed in Charleston, West Virginia's capitol city, on the morning of January 9. An odor people described as smelling like licorice filled the air. The mayor smelled it on his way to work. At first, he thought it must be a discharge coming from a local chemical plant. But when he tasted the water at a drinking fountain, he knew there was trouble.

It was about this time that West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) began getting calls from people saying their water tasted weird and smelled bad.

The smell was traced to an aboveground storage tank, located at a truck terminal next to the Elk River, which supplies drinking water for people living in and around Charleston. The tank, built in 1938, was about a mile and a half from Charleston's surface water intake center.

click to enlarge MARTIN BUECHLEY
  • Martin Buechley

When inspectors arrived at the tank, they found a chemical stream, four feet wide. A containment area, built of cement blocks, had been set around the tank, but it had not been maintained, and was overrun. The tank itself was corroded through.

That tank was used to store a chemical, crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), used for washing coal. "We don't know a lot about that chemical," says Jeanette. "Three things it says on the fact sheet for MCHM: Do not inhale, do not let it touch your skin and do not digest. They know enough not to do those things. But what happened in Charleston is they inhaled it, they bathed in water contaminated with it and they drank it."

The day passed without a warning to the public. The water company, American Water, was confident their filters could handle whatever was coming in. It wasn't until late that afternoon that they realized the filters were overloaded and DEP issued a public warning to stop using the water.

"That whole day, restaurants had been serving water, people made formula for their babies using the water," says Jeanette. "People started going to the hospitals because they got rashes and they were getting nauseous."

The chemical plume that seeped through the ground into the Elk River would eventually find its way to the Ohio River. In Cincinnati, they shut off their water intake for a day as the plume passed by.

Six months later, in Charleston, people remain concerned about the safety of their water; 60 percent of citizens in the nine counties affected say they are still using bottled water.

"This got me very concerned about chemical safety," says Jeanette. And, being Jeanette, she did something. First she started finding out about the state of chemical storage tanks in Indiana. Then she got on the phone.

click to enlarge MARTIN BUECHLEY
  • Martin Buechley

Virtues of vigilance

In Indiana there are 9,581 aboveground storage tanks. Of these, 8,685 are not subject to regular governmental inspection. Indiana's inspection program applies to petroleum tanks, when they are constructed, and to tanks containing fertilizers and pesticides.

As to all those other tanks, Jeanette discovered a kind of Alphonse and Gaston situation, in which confusion reigns regarding who is doing what and where responsibility lies. When she called the Emergency Management Team headquarters in Michigan City and asked if they knew the condition of tanks in their area, their representative told her: "The LaPorte Fire Marshall and the Michigan City Fire Department do the inspections. So I called the Fire Marshall and he said, 'We don't inspect those tanks. We don't know where they are; we wouldn't even know what to look for. ' " ... He also told me they have no authority. They can't tell the company to fix it."

Indiana is not alone in this. Only 13 states regularly inspect all of their aboveground tanks. This is significant because where regular inspections have been instituted, plenty of problems have been discovered, enough to conclude that when left to themselves, tank companies cannot be relied upon to police themselves.

Minnesota initiated a rigorous aboveground tank inspection policy ten years ago in response to a boom in ethanol production. "Minnesota said we can't have these huge tanks with stuff that's that dangerous without knowing their condition," says Jeanette. When Minnesota's inspection began, 90 percent of tanks were found to have problems. Now that number has been reduced to 2 percent on an annual basis.

New York State employs a team of 20 aboveground tank inspectors. Jeanette says, "I asked them, what do they find? We want to know if this worth doing, and they said 10-20 percent of tanks are not in compliance."

Jeanette believes that the biggest obstacle to making Hoosiers safe from a Charleston-like catastrophe may be public ignorance. Aboveground tanks are so familiar they become a virtually invisible part of the landscape. Either that, or they are located in obscure places where the public doesn't generally go.

But thanks to the Right-to-Know Act, the public can gain access to a census that shows where tanks are located and what they are used for. Armed with this information, they can then ask local public officials to determine a given tank's condition. They can also bring questions to their local water department, like, in the event of a spill, what's the plan?

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