Last Thursday, an estimated 300,000 residents of nine counties in West Virginia were told they could not use or drink their tap water after a chemical spilled from a holding tank into the Elk River. The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (also known as MCHM), is used to “wash” coal of its impurities to produce a “cleaner” exhaust from coal processing. Although MCHM can be dangerous in high concentrations, it generally causes eye, skin and throat irritation, trouble breathing and dizziness or drowsiness to people who are exposed. Scientists note, however, that we know very little about MCHM and its long-term effects with even minor levels of human exposure.
Levels of MCHM tested below the toxic one part per million threshold on Sunday. And on Monday, Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, said the ban was being lifted in a “strict, methodological manner to help ensure the water system is not overwhelmed by excessive demand, thereby causing more water quality and service issues.”
How did 300,000 West Virginia residents end up without clean water for seven days and counting? The answer is simple. A chain of incomplete regulations and bureaucratic hand-offs allowed the massive chemical leak to happen without notice.
The tank and storage facility, which is part of an old Pennzoil refinery “dating back to the 1930s or 1940s,” was subject to almost no state and local monitoring. In fact, a state regulator told the Wall Street Journal that environmental inspectors hadn’t visited the site since 1991. Moreover, the company responsible for spilling approximately 7,500 gallons of toxic MCHM, the Orwellian named Freedom Industries, was not subject to any permits or inspections. “According to Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries, which owns the chemical tank that ruptured, is exempt from Department of Environmental Protection inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals, and does not produce them,” the New York Times reported.
As for MCHM, the regulation wasn’t much better. In the wake of last week’s spill, state and local officials have said they knew little about the chemical, its threats to public health, or how to properly treat it or get it out of drinking water supplies. “I’ve been working for 25 years on water-related issues, and this is the first I’ve heard of this chemical,” Pail Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, told Salon. Furthermore, although Freedom Industries did, as required by law, include MCHM on a list of chemicals with “immediate (acute) hazards” that it supplied to the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, that list, which is used for risk management and threat assessment, apparently didn’t go anywhere useful. Spokespeople for West Virginia American Water and for a local emergency management group both told the WSJ they were unaware any such list existed.
Clearly, state and federal laws should require more rigorous testing of hazardous chemicals to ensure they don’t pose health risks, and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has vowed to look into tighter regulation of chemical storage facilities. “There are certain reporting things that companies have to do,” he said. “And I do think we have to look at them to make sure this kind of incident does not happen again.”
But looking into additional regulations is not the same as actually implementing them.
The current political climate, at both the state and federal level, has been dominated by Republican politicians pushing to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and roll back government regulations on businesses. Indeed, even while acknowledging that this incident “does show that there are some chemicals that fall under the radar,” the chairman of a county-level emergency response planning group told the Wall Street Journal, “I don’t want to overregulate private industry.” Similarly, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that instead of more action from Congress, we should focus on enforcing the “ample regulations already on the books” and eliminating regulations that “we think are cumbersome, are over the top, and that are costing the economy jobs.”
As if to highlight their antipathy toward environmental regulations, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed legislation last Thursday, the same day the West Virginia chemical spill occurred, aimed at easing EPA rules. Among other things, H.R. 2279, otherwise known as “The Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act,” aims to hamper EPA’s ability to impose clean up deadline by requiring it to “consult” more closely with states, and weakens EPA’s ability to require corporations to carry insurance designed to cover the cost of potential clean up efforts. If H.R. 2279 were law, it would have certainly delayed clean up efforts in West Virginia and shifted the burden of the cost of clean up away from Freedom Industries and onto West Virginia taxpayers.
But nearly every House Republican, including all three House Representatives from West Virginia, voted in support of H.R. 2279, which Republicans described as a needed update for federal environmental laws. “Our goal with all three of these bills is to modernize some of the environmental laws that we oversee, and make sure that the states are playing a significant role in implementing them,” said Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), one of the sponsors of the legislation.
House Democrats, meanwhile, criticized the legislation for weakening current law and shifting the costs of environmental cleanups onto taxpayers. “The outcome of enacting this bill should be obvious,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). “If polluters don’t pay to clean up their pollution, then it just becomes one more burden to the taxpayer, and none of us should want that.” Last week, the White House Policy Advisors forcefully argued that “the bill’s requirements could result in significant site cleanup delays, endangering public health and the environment,” and President Obama issued a veto threat.
This particular disaster is coming to an end. Preventing something similar from happening again, however, will take the effort and political will to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of regulations to make sure businesses like Freedom Industries and chemicals like MCHM are covered. While there should be no more regulation than necessary, one can make a compelling argument that maintaining the integrity of the potable water supply is a basic protection that doesn’t really cross the line into “overregulation.”
“We can’t just point a single finger at this company,” Angela Rosser, executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told The New York Times. “We need to look at our entire system and give some serious thought to making some serious reform and valuing our natural resources over industry interests.”
**Featured Image Credit: haglundc on Flickr.