West VA spill – Coal takes the profit, the public pays to clean up the mess

  • Published on January 22nd, 2014

By Meteor Blades

The spill of 7,500 gallons of a coal-washing chemical into a major source of drinking water in West Virginia has once again brought to public attention how corporate-government connections so often favor industrial interests above the common good. In this instance, nobody died from the spill at a facility not inspected since 1991, although more than a hundred wound up going to physicians to deal with headaches, nausea and other problems related.

For many of the 300,000 people affected by Freedom Industries’ government-enabled negligence, getting bottled water to replace what they could no longer use from their taps to drink or bathe was a hassle, especially as stores jacked up prices. Many businesses closed. Neither the full health nor full economic impact is yet known. But for many small businesses, three days shuttered can be as devastating as three days without work for individuals living paycheck to paycheck, as a large percentage of West Virginians do.

Kate Sheppard writes:

Yet finding out where else such chemicals are stored in the state is difficult, environmental advocates say. The forms disclosing the chemicals are filed with the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. Communications director Lawrence Messina said the department keeps the past five years of filings, but most of them are on paper—because most of the roughly 9,500 facilities in the state that file these reports still turn them in that way. Electronic filing has only recently become an option, and the department itself does not offer a publicly available online database. Individuals can request a filing for a particular facility, presuming they know of its existence, and county emergency planners keep copies of the filings for their local sites. So some information exists, but there’s no easy way to search it by location or chemical.

Coal field activists warn that while the spill in Charleston is a big deal, many in the state could potentially be exposed to the chemical on a daily basis. “It’s a big emergency here based on the fact that 300,000 people’s water source was polluted, but the story here is that coal companies use this chemical and other chemicals in West Virginia every day,” said Bill Price, a West Virginia-based organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

So, just finding out what chemicals are stored at thousands of sites is an immense task that the state ought to be making easier but isn’t. Three years ago, as a result of a fatal 2008 explosion of a chemical facility, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board made recommendations designed to prevent recurrences. None of those recommendations have been adopted.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has proposed tightening the 37-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act. But, says Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the TSCA revamp may not be the best approach. The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Homeland Security already have regulatory authority over chemicals under the Clean Water Act and other legislation. And the proposed reform of TSCA is only marginally stronger than the existing law.

The West Virginia spill is just a symptom of the overall disease. Regulations on hazardous chemicals certainly need to be tougher. But without ample inspection and enforcement budgets, all the regulations in the world won’t shield anyone.

As Jeff Biggers has written:

“This crisis is about much more than a renegade chemical company,” said Bob Kincaid, board president of Coal River Mountain Watch, an organization based in Raleigh County in the state’s southern coalfields that fights mountaintop-removal mining. “It’s about an entire state subjected day after day for more than a century to a laundry list of poisons by renegade companies. This particular poisoning happened to catch the world’s attention, but for us, it’s another day in the Appalachian Sacrifice Zone.”

One certainty: The last thing we need to do to maintain clean water is to follow the lead of the House of Representatives last week in a voting for a regulation-weakening measure—the Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act of 2013. That bill—passed 225-188 with only five Democrats on board—handed over to the states authority for regulating and cleaning up hazardous waste. It probably won’t get a hearing in the Senate. But the bill sends as clear a signal to Americans on how Republican representatives feel about protecting them as Freedom Industries did in West Virginia: No big deal.

(Originally appeared at DailyKos.)

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