How’s that “defund the EPA” working for you now? West Virginia edition


Rite-Aid store in Charleston, West Virginia, out of bottled drinking water.

Rite-Aid store in Charleston, West Virginia, out of bottled drinking water. Eyewitness report and photo via Twitter

West Virginia’s water woes might look like a political campaign ad from God to some people.

If you’re watching closely, you may already understand some of the morals of this story.

Last night West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared an emergency in six counties, telling about 300,000 people to avoid touching their tapwater — no drinking, mixing infant formula, cooking, or bathing; flushing toilets was okay.  NBC reported:

A chemical spill into a West Virginia river has led to a tap water ban for up to 300,000 people, shut down bars and restaurants and led to a run on bottled water in some stores as people looked to stock up.

The federal government joined West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in declaring a disaster as the West Virginia National Guard arranged to dispense bottled drinking water to emergency services agencies in the counties hit by the chemical spill into the Elk River.

Federal authorities are also opening an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the leak and what triggered it, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Friday.

The advisory was expanded at night to nine counties and includes West Virginia American Water customers in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties.

Several thousand gallons of an industrial chemical had leaked out, into a tributary to the Kanawha River above Charleston, upstream from the city’s culinary water intake.  While the company responsible for the leak, Freedom Industries, assured the governor and other authorities that the spill is not threat to human health, officials took the more cautious path.

This case illustrates troubles we have with food and water supplies, protecting public health, and the rapid proliferation and spread of modern technology and chemical innovation.

  • Why did the company say the spill is no threat?  No research has pinned any particular health effect to the chemical involved. But you, you sneaky, suspicious person, you want to know just what chemical is involved, don’t you?
  • What’s the chemical involved? 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM) spilled out of a tank into the Elk River, which flows into the Kanawha River, from which Charleston gets its water.  Charleston, West Virginia’s capital, is also the state’s largest city.  You’re still suspicious?
  • What are the health effects of the stuff? Now you ask questions for which there are not great answers.  The chemical, with the methylcyclohexane linked to an alcohol molecule, is new enough, and rare enough in industry, that there are not a lot of studies on what it does.  It’s known to irritate skin and mucous membranes; breathing a lot of it can cause pneumonia.  Only rats have been exposed to the stuff enough to know what it does, and only a few rats for only short periods of time and not massive doses. In other words, we don’t know the health effects.
  • What’s the stuff used for? Freedom Industries uses it to wash coal.  Heck, I didn’t even know coal was washed other than a water spray to hold down dust in crushing, loading and unloading the stuff.  [if you missed the link in this post, let call your attention again to the story at WOWK-TV, which is quite thorough in discussing MCHM and its effects.  WOWK-TV is more thorough than the federal regulating agencies.]
  • But wait! If there are no known health effects, why the caution? It’s not that the stuff has been tested and found safe to humans.  MCHM simply hasn’t been tested to see what the health effects are.  The toxic profile for the compound at CDC’s ATDSR does not exist.  NIOSH doesn’t have much  more information on it. The most thorough analysis of what it might do is populated by small studies, or none at all.
  • What do you mean the stuff hasn’t been tested!!!???? Welcome to to Grover Norquist’s “smaller government,” to John Boehner’s and Mitch McConnell’s “reduced regulation,” to Rick Perry’s “states’ rights” world.  Way back in 1962 Rachel Carson warned about the proliferation of newly-devised chemicals being loosed into the environment, when we really had no historical knowledge of what the stuff would do to humans who ran into it, nor to other life forms, nor even inanimate things like rocks, wood and metal.  A decade later, the founders of the Environmental Protection Agency entertained the idea that a federal agency would be responsible for assuring that chemical substances would be tested for safety, both old substances and new.  For a couple of decades Congress supported that mission, until it became clear that there are simply too many new compounds and too great a backlog to test all, thoroughly.That world of making chemists and big companies responsible for their chemical children began to crumble in the Reagan administration, and is mostly abandoned now.  Chemical juveniles may run as delinquent as they would, with EPA and all other agencies essentially powerless to do anything — unless and until tragedy.  Even where EPA, and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and all branches and twigs of the Department of Homeland Security, designate something as hazardous and deserving of care in handling, a state like Texas will ignore the rules on a substance until an accident blows half of West, Texas, to Hell, Michigan, with loss of life and enormous property destruction.  Afterward, victims get left bereft of aid to rebuild, and wondering who they might look to, to look out for them, to prevent such a horrible occurrence in the future.

So it goes, the nation blundering along from one tragedy, until the next.

Through most of American history, great tragedies produced great reforms.  No longer.  The Great Red State of West Virginia is dependent on federal largesse to get water to drink, at enormous expense and waste of time, talent and money.  Meanwhile, West Virginia’s Members of Congress conspire in Washington, D.C., to strip federal agencies from any power to even worry about what may be poisoning West Virginians.

Gov. Tomblin’s speedy action may seem out of place, not because there is great danger, but because he’s acting to protect public health without a mass of dead bodies in view to justify his actions.  We don’t see that much anymore (Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott didn’t cancel appointments to get to West, Texas to even offer sympathy, but instead scheduled weekend jaunts after it was clear the fire was out and there was no danger.  The good people of West did not greet them with a hail of rotten tomatoes, but thanked them for their concern.  Americans are nothing if not polite.)

I was struck with the news last night because I could find no report of just what was the chemical that leaked into the rivers.  This morning we finally learned it was MCHM.  In the depths of some of those stories, we also learn that the leak may have been going on for some time.  Though thousands of gallons of the stuff are missing, the concentrations in the river suggest not much is leaking now . . . the rest leaked earlier, and is already water under the bridge south of Charleston.

What do you think state and federal authorities should do in this case?  What do you think will actually happen?

More:

Update January 12, 2014:  JRehling got it right:

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6 Responses to How’s that “defund the EPA” working for you now? West Virginia edition

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    What if it had been terrorists poisoning the water supply for 300,000 people, instead of a corporation?

    https://fbcdn-sphotos-g-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash3/t1/1619557_10151941671951094_323696864_n.jpgTom Tomorrow: What if terrorists, no corporations, poisoned our water?

    See Truthout: http://truth-out.org/art/item/21523-a-typical-day

    Like

  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Oh, not off-topic at all, Porlock!

    One of the things that I’ve been interested to watch over the years is the decline in nuisance law. Environmental regulations protect corporations who use chemicals, because they tend to replace the common-law nuisance laws.

    At common law, Freedom Industries is absolutely liable for all the damage their leak has done, whether the stuff is deadly or not — just because it smells bad, tastes bad, and poses a classic nuisance to the company’s neighbors.

    Who will sue in nuisance?

    On the other hand, were the chemical regulated, the company would be protected from liability for the cost of shipping in bottled waters, or closing the schools, or shutting down the hotels.

    If the Marriott Corp. is smart, they’ll file nuisance charges Monday, and ask an injunction to require the company to pay for lost business, on a daily basis. So will every other hotel and restaurant, and school district.

    Watch. I’ll wager no one does.

    Like

  3. Porlock Junior says:

    The OP is an excellent summary of the matter. But it omitted one aspect, and it’s one in which Republican noses particularly need to be rubbed:

    Perverse Incentives

    When you’re designing your industrial process, be sure to use a chemical that has never been subjected to adequate testing for hazards. Even if it turns out to be dangerous, you won’t be held liable in any serious way, because you didn’t know. Even if it clearly can have some harmful effects right now, you face very little danger under the law. Why go with something that’s subject to some regulatory costs when there’s no financial downside to using something that’s not fully understood?

    (It can be seen that this situation poses some genuine problems in regulatory law. Drawing the necessary lines in a fair and rational way is not easy. The whining of industry at all the governmental bother that they’re subject to is not wholly without merit. If I were dictator, I’d create some kind of deliberative body, a diverse group (maybe even two of them) representing the people of the nation, which would hash out such questions. But that’s nonsense. Completely out of date. The kind of idea you’d have heard from Enlightenment philosophers.)

    (Apologies for the off-topic rant.)

    Like

  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Here’s what EPA is really doing about climate change: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/EPAactivities.html

    Like

  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Whatajerk said:

    Oh for crying out loud, this and NOTHING to do with the EPA. it is and industrial accident, it is not some violation of EPA standards.

    I certainly won’t quibble with your chosen handle.

    You’re right, it’s an industrial accident. You’re right, there is no EPA standard.

    That’s the problem. Keen eye, you have.

    Hope the eye is connected to something behind it.

    Moreover, the epa has absolutely nothing to to with relieving this problem at all, it is outside of their writ. They are a regulatory agency not a relief organization. Do you thing that any regulatory agency can prevent industrial accidents? Moreover, do you think the eco-marxists in the current EPA give one hoot about this sort of stuff.

    EPA has the portfolio to test new chemicals to determine whether they pose any danger. This stuff is untested.

    It is indeed EPA’s job, under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA, or TOSCA). Parts of that job are also doled out to NIOSH (you can look up the acronym), and another part to CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

    As I identified — perhaps not clearly enough for whatever fog you’re in at the moment — the funding to do the testing we expect those agencies to do has been cut, and such testing is not happening.

    Consequently, no one knows whether MCHM is harmful or not. Depending on exactly how much MCHM is made in the U.S. every year, the public may have a “chemical right to know,” in order to help make decisions about whether plants making or using such chemicals should be allowed to site in the community, next door to you, for example, or upstream from your drinking water intake.

    It may well be that the stuff just smells bad and makes the water in Charleston taste funny — but does nothing else at all. (I was last in Charleston in 1987; I thought the water wasn’t great then, but it was drinkable, and EPA certified it to be free from most pollutants.)

    Perhaps there is no need to make 300,000 people go without water.

    But we don’t know that. As local officials said, “I don’t know that the water is not safe, but we can’t say that it IS safe.”

    No, EPA is not an emergency aid program. One of EPA’s jobs is to advise cities on whether the water is safe to drink, even and especially when laced with pollutants. But in this case, EPA can’t do that.

    It’s the company’s job to prevent industrial accidents. If this stuff is bad, and if the company doesn’t clean up, then it becomes EPA’s job under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Conservation and Recovery Act of 1980 (CERCLA), or Superfund. It’s EPA’s job to clean up the messes companies leave behind that pose health dangers.

    Then EPA sends the bill to you. They have your address and your bank account number, I reckon.

    If you’re willing to keep bearing those costs, there’s no need to panic now, is there?

    They are AGW fraudsters looking to attack property rights and squeeze more money out of the taxpayer .

    Sesame Street has some videos you should see. Kids learn from Sesame Street to tell when one thing is greater than another. The average temperature of the planet through the past decade is greater than the average of the previous 120 years. In short, the globe is warming. Any kid who can read a thermometer could tell you that.

    Maybe you should get a kid to read the global thermometer for you.

    EPA is attacking no one’s property rights. EPA proposes to save taxpayers money by preventing damage to coasts, storm damage, wildfire damage, and drought damage.

    It’s impossible to short the insurance companies. When we get hit with disasters, everybody pays.

    Maybe Sesame Street could help you figure out that “paying” means you have less money than “not paying.”

    It is a bizarre assertion that you make for the EPA has not been limited in anyway either nationally or in WV.

    Please give me the number of the bill which fully funds EPA’s chemical testing program. Can you?

    What a childish and pointless remark. As usual, red herrings and straw men out of you.

    I think the straw in your eye is coloring your perception of the herring.

    In fact, in comparing sizes, Sesame Street says we all have room to grow. You, too.

    P.S. Jerk, is government or civics required in high school in your state? How did you get out of taking that class?

    Like

  6. whatajerk says:

    Oh for crying out loud, this and NOTHING to do with the EPA. it is and industrial accident, it is not some violation of EPA standards.
    Moreover, the epa has absolutely nothing to to with relieving this problem at all, it is outside of their writ. They are a regulatory agency not a relief organization. Do you thing that any regulatory agency can prevent industrial accidents? Moreover, do you think the eco-marxists in the current EPA give one hoot about this sort of stuff.

    They are AGW fraudsters looking to attack property rights and squeeze more money out of the taxpayer .

    It is a bizarre assertion that you make for the EPA has not been limited in anyway either nationally or in WV.

    What a childish and pointless remark. As usual, red herrings and straw men out of you.

    Given the circumstances, you should be ashamed of yourself, but then you are incapable of shame.

    Like

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