West Virginia spill a cautionary tale

January 14, 2014

You can bet your last dime on this: There are around 300,000 people in southern West Virginia who will never take tap water for granted again.

As of Tuesday afternoon, an advisory that people not drink water from their faucets, shower or wash clothes in communities surrounding Charleston, W.Va., was slowly being lifted following a chemical spill in the Elk River that was discovered last week. The disruption in water service has not only sorely inconvenienced residents but has also shuttered schools, delayed all but essential surgeries and brought business activity to a halt. People living in the nine counties affected by the industrial accident must now also live with the anxiety of wondering how much water they might have consumed or been exposed to before officials found out that the region’s water was tainted with the chemical methylcyclohexane methanol, also known as MCHM, which is used to clean coal.

Tourism officials eager to showcase images of scenic mountain vistas and verdant historical sites must be wincing right now, particularly as the accident has placed a national spotlight on a regulatory environment for industry within West Virginia that might best be described as relaxed. In an apparent eagerness to bring business into the state, particularly as the coal industry has faltered, officials have been all too ready to treat polluters and other malefactors with kid gloves if they simply promise to clean up their acts.

Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, told The New York Times this week that “West Virginia has a pattern of resisting federal oversight and what they consider (Environmental Protection Agency) interference, and that really puts workers and the population at risk.”

The estimated 7,500 gallons of MCHM that spilled into the Elk River was reportedly caused by a small hole in a chemical storage tank that was just a mile upriver from the largest water treatment plant in West Virginia. It hadn’t been visited by environmental inspectors since 1991, and had been overlooked because no chemicals were manufactured or processed at the site. This blunder follows the deaths of 29 coal miners at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, W. Va. in 2010, an accident that resulted from neglect and violations of safety rules on the part of the mine’s owners, and a 2008 explosion at a chemical plant near Charleston, W.Va. that resulted in two fatalities. Though it was recommended after the latter mishap that the state come up with a new program to respond to chemical accidents, officials sat on their hands and did nothing.

Though West Virginia’s water crisis will likely fade from the headlines soon enough, it should serve as a cautionary tale for those who would gut environmental regulations on the state and federal levels.

Though the hands-off-industry crowd loves to portray agencies like the EPA or Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection as meddling busybodies eager to find fault and put the brakes on commerce, they are the first line of defense for our water, air and food.

There once was a time when waterborne illnesses like cholera were major killers in the United States.

It wasn’t tamed by happenstance, but through scientific advances and careful regulation. The people who keep an eye on such a vital resource deserve to be thanked, not vilified.



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