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

January 10, 2014

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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