"One might assume the chemical stored inside is not hazardous — until it spills into the drinking water," he said.
As Charleston residents lined up for water, often in the rain or in darkness, they fumed at the chemical company and asked how it could be allowed to let a dangerous and poorly understood chemical leak into their tap water.
"They didn't maintain their product like they should have, and it's affected a lot of people's lives," Chuck Fulks, 59, a construction company employee, said as he loaded emergency water into his pickup in the parking lot of an industrial plant in Charleston. "It looks like they didn't follow regulations."
In Chemical Valley, as the area around Charleston is sometimes called, regulation can be a dirty word. The chemical industry provides at least 9,950 jobs directly and 27,000 related jobs, according to the American Chemistry Council. The region's industry generates a $747-million payroll and pays $117 million in federal taxes and $72 million in state and local taxes, according to the trade group.
Mayor Jones said many residents had complained to him since the spill that the chemical company wasn't properly regulated. He said he was not sure more regulation was the answer.
"Maybe we just need the people who are supposed to enforce the laws to enforce them," he said.
Aluise of the state Department of Environmental Protection said Freedom Industries was required by law to immediately report the leak and to take action to stop it. The company did neither, he said. On Monday, the state agency cited the company for five safety violations, saying containment walls at a new site where Freedom has moved the chemicals were riddled with holes.
When a 2008 explosion and fire killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W.Va., the Chemical Safety Board recommended new procedures to help prevent chemical accidents. Those recommendations were not adopted by state environmental and health agencies.
Horowitz said there was "some cautious support early on" from the state and the chemical industry after the 2008 incident. "But there hasn't been much concrete action," he said.
The safety board also made recommendations after a 2010 phosgene leak at a DuPont plant in Belle, W.Va., that killed one worker. Prior to the leak, federal regulators had not inspected the plant for five years. The plant later complied with the recommendations.
Asked about last week's spill, Anne Kolton, vice president of communications for the American Chemistry Council, said the trade group supported attempts to find out what went wrong in Charleston.
"It's very important to determine whether better enforcement of existing regulations could have helped prevent this incident," Kolton said. "If careful examination indicates that new steps are needed, ACC will work with Congress to ensure that any new requirements are targeted and minimize unintended consequences."
Horowitz said one focus of the Chemical Safety Board inquiry would be installation, maintenance and inspection of the storage tanks. Asked whether the board would recommend changes in inspections, he replied, "There is an opportunity for improvement."
Aluise said the Department of Environmental Protection intended to propose legislation for tougher regulations on chemical storage. In June, the agency asked Eastman about MCHM in response to complaints about odors at the tank site. The agency visited the site five times since 2001 in response to similar complaints but did not inspect the tanks, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Even after the water is declared safe to drink, long-term health effects of exposure to the chemical still won't be known, said Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund. Among them could be damage to the liver or kidneys, or to a developing fetus, he said.
"We just don't know because this chemical has never been properly tested," Denison said. "The data just don't exist."