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Tina Casey headshot

Fallout Continues From West Virginia Chemical Spill


The West Virginia chemical spill has already faded out of the national spotlight but local communities are still feeling the aftereffects. The spill contaminated the water supply of a private water company serving a nine-county area starting on January 9, making the water unfit for any purpose but flushing toilets. Three hundred thousand people have been affected along with businesses, hospitals, schools, and other institutions.

State and water company officials began declaring the water safe to use and drink in some areas last week, but shortly afterward they had to issue an advisory for pregnant women. Since then, the "safe" designation has expanded to cover all of the affected areas, but the West Virginia Gazette reports that hospital admissions for chemical-related symptoms have skyrocketed, indicating that the declaration was premature.

That's just one of the latest developments as West Virginia continues to deal with the aftermath of a major public health crisis, including a new report that the initial chemical identified in the spill may not have been the only one.

A textbook example of what not to do

The company responsible for the West Virginia chemical spill was Freedom Industries, which has since declared bankruptcy after, apparently, the principals took steps to protect themselves. The company's storage facility sits right above the banks of the river, clearly posing a potential hazard.

The chemical that spilled was Crude MCHM, a foaming agent used to wash coal.

Crude MCHM is not specifically covered by federal regulations, as described in a detailed article in the West Virginia Gazette. However, given the location of the Freedom Industries storage tanks above the river, close upstream to a major water supply intake, common sense clearly indicates that state agencies, at least, should have taken the lead to establish a hazard mitigation strategy, in the absence of any responsible measures taken by Freedom Industry.

Adding a new wrinkle to an already devastating situation, last night the West Virginia Gazette reported that another chemical product called "PPH" was included in the tank that leaked, but officials were not made aware of that fact until earlier yesterday, January 21 -- more than ten days after the spill occurred.

Chemical spills and "public culture"

As reported in the Gazette by Ken Ward, Jr. (@Kenwardjr), state officials never worked with Freedom Industries and American Water to develop an emergency response plan, to say nothing of a hazard prevention/mitigation plan. That elicited this comment from former U.S. Chemical Board member Gerald Poje:
Much remains to be investigated in the catastrophe -- managerial competency, local, state and federal competency, regulatory sufficiency and ultimately the public culture that protects or weakens the security of essential infrastructure.

While that phrase "public culture" sinks in, consider that at the height of the crisis, on January 14, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner spoke with reporter Russell Bermann of The Hill and reaffirmed his party's longstanding commitment to rolling back environmental regulations:
I am entirely confident that there are ample regulations already on the books to protect the health and safety of the American people...What we try to do is look at those regulations that we think are cumbersome, are over-the-top and are costing our economy jobs. That’s what our focus continues to be.

In terms of public culture, two things are going on here. The first, apparently, is ignorance at the highest levels of public policy making. Assuming our sources are correct, Speaker Boehner -- who in this position inhabits third place in the succession line to be President of the United States -- is apparently unaware that there are no federal regulations dealing specifically with Crude MCHM, so "ample" is at the very least woefully understating the case.

Second, and more to the point, Speaker Boehner and his party have engaged in a generations-long effort to frame environmental protection as a jobs-versus-environment zero sum game, in which regulations are a "cumbersome" burden preventing job growth.

In light of this disaster, clearly the hundreds of West Virginia business owners affected by the spill, along with their thousands of employees, will have something to say about whether or not regulation of the local chemical industry has been cumbersome, and to whom.

[Image (cropped): Two of the storage tanks at Freedom Industries along the Elk River, courtesy of WVUMC (West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church)]

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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