West Virginia Ignored Federal Regulations That Could Have Prevented Chemical Spill Catastrophe

People in West Virginia knew there was something in the water when they smelled a licorice-type scent emanating from their running faucets—something we now know was the result of a massive chemical spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol from a 40,000-gallon tank owned by coal company Freedom Industries. The calamity has left hundreds of thousands of people in nine counties with a water supply poisoned by a coal-cleaning agent that can cause skin irritation, nausea, vomiting and wheezing. 

What most West Virginians may not know, however, is that their government had ignored a set of federal regulations that could have easily prevented the catastrophe.

In August 2008, a chemical explosion at the state’s Bayer CropScience plant killed two workers and roiled Kanawha County. The US Chemical Safety Board stepped in to investigate what went wrong, identifying the usual culprits—equipment failures, management lapses, poor procedures—but its most damning revelation was that all of these problems had been documented by regulators before. 

With the West Virginia’s poor track record on chemical plant safety in mind, the CSB strongly urged the state and Kanawha County to implement a new safety program that would include regular government audits and new accident-prevention procedures. This was back in 2011.

In that time, the 169-page report from the CBS languished in obscurity, ignored by state officials until 300,000 people were left without running water last Friday.

Neither Governor Earl Ray Tomblin nor any state officials have indicated whether they would now push for the implementation of the CBS’s three-year-old recommendations.

The chemical and coal industries are extremely powerful in West Virginia: there are around 150 chemical companies that employ 12,000 workers, and coal mining employs tens of thousands more. 

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