Environment

5 Reasons the West Virginia Chemical Spill Should Concern You, Regardless of Where You Live

In the week since the spill, some startling information has come to light that should make us shake in our boots.

Photo Credit: AFP

Most of us in the U.S. are lucky enough to have clean water come out of our taps every day; so lucky that we often don’t think about where our water is coming from and who's in charge of making sure it’s safe.

Over 300,000 West Virginians impacted by a chemical spill last week got a reminder of how integral clean water is to our daily lives and livelihoods. But if we dismiss what happened there as an isolated accident or simply a problem that people in resource-heavy areas like West Virginia have to deal with, we’d be mistaken. In the week since the spill, some startling information has come to light that should make us shake in our boots, regardless of where we live.

1. What the hell is that chemical?

The chemical that spilled into the Elk River from Freedom Industries’ tank farm was 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM). We don't know much else, however, since material safety sheets and toxicology databases don’t have much info, as Ken Ward Jr. writes for the West Virginia Gazette. And that is cause for concern. Ward writes:

… some emergency response and environmental protection officials have been quick to assure the public that 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol isn't "hazardous." They've made that statement based on one limited piece of evidence: the fact that it's not listed as a material whose shipment is regulated by the federal Department of Transportation.

However, the material-safety data sheet, or MSDS, being cited by some of those same officials indicates that the substance is considered hazardous under other regulatory standards, such as those set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

While CDC officials announced what they believed was a safe level of the chemical, they didn’t say how they arrived at their conclusion. The fact is, no matter where you live, there are tens of thousands of chemicals we may come in contact with that have not been tested by the EPA. The chemicals are only as safe as the companies that make them say they are. Do you want to take their word for it?

2. Safe or not?

Even though the go-ahead was given to some portions of the affected area to begin drinking water again, health concerns persist. Marcus Constantino reported for the Charleston Daily Mail that, “Area emergency rooms are seeing an influx of patients reporting symptoms related to exposure to chemical-tainted water, despite the fact that West Virginia American Water has deemed water in many areas safe to use.” Some of the people visiting local emergency rooms with symptoms reported that their water was cleared as safe to drink.

3. Whose fault?

Investigations after the incident will likely point the finger to a variety of places as important questions are raised. Why was a chemical storage facility sited so close to a water source for hundreds of thousands of people? Why was there no secondary containment to prevent a spill from entering the waterway? How long was it leaking and why didn’t the company notify authorities? And considering the proximity to the water source, why was there no emergency management plan?

We learned that the last time the facility was inspected by the Department of Environmental Protection was 1991. “Freedom Industries' tanks don't fall under an inspection program and the chemicals stored at the facility weren't considered hazardous enough to require environmental permitting,” the AP reported.

Even so, authorities should have known what was at the facility. “Every year since at least 2008, Freedom Industries told state and local officials that the company's Etowah Terminal stored up to 1 million pounds of Crude MCHM at its Elk River facility,” writes Ken Ward Jr. for the Charleston Gazette. That information, Ward writes, is disclosed as part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act — designed so localities can know what to do in the case of an emergency or a spill.

All of this has somehow led House Speaker John Boehner to conclude that we don’t need any more regulations. In fact, we should be looking to make sure the regulations we do have aren’t too onerous. “What we try to do is look at those regulations that we think are cumbersome, are over the top, and that are costing the economy jobs,” said Boehner. “That's where our focus continues to be."

Boehner may have missed the fact that it’s not regulations, but a lack of clean water that is hurting West Virginia’s economy right now. Of course we need not just regulations, but enforcement and as those who live in industry-friendly West Virginia know, that can be hard to come by.

4. We’re all downstream.

The common bumpersticker slogan highlights the important fact that we’re all in this (ecosystem) together. In this case, some people are a lot closer downstream. Cincinnati is approximately 200 miles downstream and the mayor announced earlier this week he’d be closing two water intake valves from the Ohio River, as the plume of chemicals passed through the area. It’s an important reminder that, while we have federal regulations (and they need to be vigilantly enforced), pollution knows no boundaries.

5. More spills possible in the future.

As the toxic plume heads toward Kentucky it seems fitting that last month Kentucky representatives Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul introduced a bill called the “Economic Freedom Zones Act of 2013.” The bill seems to be aimed at making sure areas like West Virginia and their home state of Kentucky have more chance for dangerous spills.

The “bill would exempt polluters in high-poverty regions from complying with (and would bar the U.S. EPA from enforcing) water pollution permitting requirements under Clean Water Act section 402,” wrote Jennifer Chavez for Earthjustice.

The bill is shocking, and even more so in light of West Virginia’s recent spill.

“A pollution discharge of this sort is completely unacceptable,” wrote Chavez. “So is a world in which federal regulators might be barred by politically motivated legislation like the Economic Freedom Zones Act from using every tool they have to prevent and clean up similar spills in the future.”