In light of the Elk River spill, in which thousands of gallons of coal-refining chemical spilled into the water supply for more than a quarter-million residents in West Virginia and Ohio, new lines are being drawn in the fight over government regulations.
The day following the spill the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act, which would sidestep federal regulations on federal cleanup projects for state and local laws, block the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing regulations for hazardous waste disposal where state laws covering such disposals already exist, and would give states the ability to prioritize federally mandated Superfund cleanups.
On what was a party-line vote and with the threat of veto already present, the Republicans sought to put themselves on the record as opposing federal oversight on environmental protection.
“The power to grow our economy and put Americans back to work lies in the private sector,” bill’s co-sponsor Rep. Cory Gardner said in a statement. “With more than 80,000 pages of new federal regulations published in 2013 alone, commonsense revisions of existing rules and regulations are a vital part of ensuring businesses that power our state and local economies are given the capability to grow.»
While the bill will most likely never see the light of day in the Senate, the notion that the Republicans are taking this stance in the aftermath of this disaster represents a bitter fight to come. While the West Virginia attorney general has promised a full investigation, House Speaker John Boehner, who represents an area affected by the spill, pushed responsibility on the White House.
«The issue is this: We have enough regulations on the books. And what the administration ought to be doing is actually doing their jobs,» Boehner said at a press conference. «Why wasn’t this plant inspected since 1991?
«I am entirely confident that there are ample regulations already on the books to protect the health and safety of the American people,» he added. «Somebody ought to be held accountable here. 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. That’s where our focus continues to be.»
Framing a disaster
On Jan. 9 approximately 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol — a cleaning solution used to reduce the ash buildup on coal prior to burning — leaked into the Elk River, contaminating the drinking water for more than 300,000 residents in West Virginia. The spill presents an unprecedented challenge, as the safety implications of the chemical were never adequately studied.
As it is known that immediate exposure to the liquorice-scented chemical may cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea, irritated skin, itching and rashes, its long-term effect are not known.
It is also not known how long it takes for the chemical to completely become benign if leaked into the environment. Drinking and potable water use restrictions for nine counties were in place until Tuesday, with water authorities directing residents to “go easy” after the restrictions were lifted in fear of lingering chemicals in the distribution network.
While the immediate threat of this crisis is starting to recede, the circumstance that caused it in the first place remains: not enough people knew what was going on with the seemingly innocuous storage tank that Angie Rosser, the executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, described to the Huffington Post as an “old and rusty” seemingly abandoned tank.
“[We] are in the same boat as the rest of the public, the water company and apparently our governor,» Rosser said. «No one seemed to be aware or care that this dangerous chemical was upstream from our largest drinking water intake in the state. It was a recipe for disaster.»
The situation in West Virginia happened due to a blindside in West Virginia state law. The storage facility, which is owned by Freedom Industries Inc., held chemicals that were considered not hazardous enough to warrant routine state inspections. As a result, the facility received low prioritization among a state agency that is vastly underfunded. Without state pressure, Freedom Industries — which knew about the structural failure of its storage facility and actually set money aside to resolve the faults — failed to ensure the security of both the primary containment wall and the backup dike.
Due to the fact that Freedom Industries did not manufacture the chemicals but only stored them, the company was only required to submit to inspections of the physical storage facility. This was last achieved under a different owner in 2001. The company, per EPA or state environmental protection rules, did not have to submit to testing for the chemicals it stored, have to receive permits in order to discharge pollutants into the air or water, or have an emergency response plan for spills pre-made.
Freedom Industries bought the storage site last month, and it is within reason that the company did not have adequate time to resolve the discovered problems. However, an inventory of the facility’s content — as filed with state regulators in February 2013 — suggest that the facility can hold between 11.4 million to 63.5 million pounds of an assortment of chemicals, including MCHM, calcium chloride and soda ash — all in above-ground storage tanks.
Tank 396 developed a one-inch hole in its bottom, which allowed for the MCHM to pool along the ground and collect behind the dike. When the dike failed, the chemicals flooded into the river. Due to the relative-low risks of the chemical, this probably went unnoticed.
«The chemicals on this list would not be chemicals where a red flag would go up and people would be extra cautious to ensure this is housed safely,» said Rolf Halden, director of the Center For Environmental Security at Arizona State University, who reviewed the inventory list.
This presents a problem, as it is likely that MCHM is stored in reasonably large quantities throughout Coal Country, in setups similar to that of Freedom Industries. As regulators are not looking at these sites on a regular basis, the potential for a repeat of last week’s spill is high. As coal is an essential part of West Virginia’s economy, there may be a concerted effort to downplay the significance of the spill.
«This was not a coal company incident; this was a chemical company incident,» Gov. Earl Tomblin quickly told reporters after being asked if the spill is a cost of coal-mining in the state.
«This is a chemical spill accident. It just so happens that the chemical has some applications to the coal industry, just that fact alone shouldn’t cause people to point fingers at the coal industry,» said Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
Yet many feel that the momentum of public outrage may force reform.
“The narrative surrounding the spill certainly appears headed toward new regulation,” said Matt Eventoff, a message development strategist, in conversation with MintPress. “The narrative began as a narrative surrounding the spill and the crisis, and then took a new turn as a second narrative began regarding the communication following the spill. The second narrative will stay with people as long as the initial narrative, as the communication response has gotten significant media attention, and will continue to.”
“Unfortunately, additional regulations are likely,” added Catherine Ward, environmental practice co-chair for Philadelphia-based Stradley Ronon. “I say ‘unfortunately’ because the West Virginia spill would not have been prevented if there were more regulations. The fact is, most energy sources, such as coal and solar, are highly dependent on using toxic chemicals in their production processes. Laws exist to dictate how those chemicals are to be managed, stored, handled, transported and disposed. What happened in West Virginia reflects a fundamental failure to design an appropriate facility in compliance with the laws already existing.”
Many would argue that this ignores the fact that all of this has happened before. State residents have sued the coal industry for the underground storage of coal slurry, which has been alleged to contaminate the water table.
The slurry is thought to contain MCHM, several heavy metals and several known carcinogens. One such case, involving the residents of Mingo County, resulted in an undisclosed settlement with Massey Energy in regards to an alleged 1.4 billion gallons of dumped coal slurry. Another case involved the residents of Boone County, in which Alpha Natural Resources settled confidentially for its alleged contamination of the local water supply.
For many politicians, there seems to be a “balancing act” between the economic realities of their communities and the need to protect their communities. West Virginia is dependent on its coal industry not only for employment but to balance the state’s budget. This kind of industrial dependency allows politicians to accept mishaps and casualties as a “cost of business.”
However, in the wake of the death of 29 miners in the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, few feel that public inconvenience will stop “Big Coal” for long.
“I don’t expect an effective reform very soon, because the industry lobbyists will be out in force making sure that nothing interferes with their profits,” said Vernon Haltom, the executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, an environmental advocacy group based in West Virginia, to MintPress. “Nearly four years after the Upper Big Branch disaster we still don’t have meaningful safety reforms. Same thing here.
“I think there is a rush to push the scandal aside and give the all clear, even when people are still being injured by the ‘safe’ water. I believe that the politicians who created this mess with their ‘we don’t need no stinking government regulators’ mentality want to sweep this under the rug as soon as possible. And they’re very vocal about diverting blame away from their darling coal industry.”