It was their company's 40,000-gallon storage tank that leaked an estimated 7,500 gallons of a coal-washing chemical into the Elk River Thursday, just a mile-and-a-half upstream from the intake pipe of the state's largest water utility. The source of the leak is now controlled, authorities say, and federal investigators have arrived to determine causes. Not that state officials will act on anything the investigators recommend:
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said today a "do not use" order is being lifted in zones after extensive testing deemed the water safe to drink.The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has set a safety standard of one part per million for the chemical, Crude MCHM, which is used to remove sulfur and other impurities from coal. Officials had said over the weekend that it would be several days before water for 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties around Charleston could be safely used. The Federal Emergency Management Agency delivered some three million liters of bottled water to residents over the weekend.
Officials said the ban was being lifted in a "strict, methodical manner" to ensure the water system isn't overwhelmed with demand. Customers are also being advised by West Virginia American Water to flush out their pipes before using tap water again.
Critics argue that this wasn't just a case of Freedom Industries being reckless. It was instead attitudes of state officials who have a long and notorious record for giving the coal and chemical companies that underpin West Virginia's economy a loose rein when it comes to safety, health and environmental regulations. Coral Davenport and Ashley Southall report:
“We can’t just point a single finger at this company,” said Angela Rosser, the executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “We need to look at our entire system and give some serious thought to making some serious reform and valuing our natural resources over industry interests.”More about the spill below the fold.
She said lawmakers have yet to explain why the storage facility was allowed to sit on the river and so close to a water treatment plant that is the largest in the state.
West Virginia law doesn't not require inspections for chemical storage facilities, only production facilities. The operation where the spill occurred hasn't been inspected since 1991.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency, has sent an investigative team to determine the specific cause. The board's tasks include making recommendations to avoid future spills. But will this change things given the apparent indifference of officials who put industrial interests before people's safety? History indicates otherwise.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported Sunday that in January 2011—in the wake of a lethal 2008 chemical explosion that killed two people at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute—the federal safety board had recommended that West Virginia develop a program to prevent future chemical accidents in the Kanawha Valley (an Iroquoian word meaning "place of white stones"). It is often referred to as Chemical Valley. The safety board's recommendations are apparently collecting dust on some shelf somewhere. Critics have no hesitation about the reasons:
“West Virginia has a pattern of resisting federal oversight and what they consider E.P.A. interference, and that really puts workers and the population at risk,” said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a lecturer in environmental health at George Washington University."More heavily dependent" has, for more than a century, meant kowtowing to those industries. With inevitable, preventable results.
But [secretary of the State Department of Environmental Protection Randy] Huffman disputed that accusation, noting that West Virginia’s economy is more heavily dependent than other states on the coal and chemical industries. “Based upon the types of industrial activity, how does it compare to the rest of the country? It’s not in context.” Although he added, “That’s no excuse for any incident where someone gets hurt.”