West Virginia Is Just The Beginning For Chemical Spill Disasters

Thanks to the mass privatization of public water systems and the fake rhetoric of “clean coal,” we’re all at higher risk for disasters like the Elk River chemical spill.

West Virginia is facing a massive disaster with no end in sight. And if we don’t do something about anti-regulation zealotry, the mass privatization of public water systems and the real dangers of coal and other dirty energy productions, we’ll all be at risk of similar disasters in the future.

On Thursday, January 9, government officials discovered that over 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used to “clean” coal, had leaked out of a chemical facility and into the Elk River. The chemical spill was just upriver from the largest water treatment facility in West Virginia.

Soon after, government officials told residents of Charleston, West Virginia, and surrounding areas to stop using tap water. Not to drink it. Not to cook with it. Not to bathe in it. The area’s water was only sanctioned for fighting fires and flushing toilets. Initially, the warning applied to just 100,000 West Virginia residents but was quickly expanded to cover 300,000. Officials warned area residents to watch for symptoms of exposure to the chemical, which can include skin irritation, nausea, vomiting or wheezing. Since then, across the region, there has been a run on bottled water and a rush to emergency rooms.

Officials say they will allow people to use the water again when chemical levels fall to one part per million despite the fact that, as scientists note, we know very little about 4-methylcyclohexane methanol and its long-term affects with even minor levels of human exposure.

It would be easy to blame this disaster on the incredibly Orwellian named Freedom Industries, the chemical processing company directly responsible for the storage tanker that leaked. But the fact is other variables—including corporate and government practices echoed in every corner of the United States—made this disaster more likely and helped it spread.

First, of course, this incident quickly sheds all the green-washing claims big energy companies have tried to attach to the notion of “clean coal.” After all, the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol was the latest, greatest chemical compound used to “wash” coal of its impurities to produce a “cleaner” exhaust from coal processing. Community groups and environmental activists have been dispelling the myth of “clean coal” for decades as nothing more than a PR distraction by coal interests. In 2008, over 1.1 billion gallons of water were polluted by toxic coal ash, leaving the town of Harriman, Tennessee, literally uninhabitable. The incident in West Virginia is the latest in a long list of toxic disasters from coal power in the United States.

And then there are the disasters that haven’t happened yet. As mountaintop removal blasting continues throughout the Appalachia region—a wildly dangerous and destructive but supposedly “cheap” way of extracting coal—the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia sits just 400 yards downhill from an impoundment that holds 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge. In the event of an emergency, studies have shown the school would have five minutes total to evacuate the school’s 230 children before six feet of toxic sludge would coat the entire school.

Taken alongside consideration of the many oil leaks in recent years as well as the water-poisoning effects of fracking from natural gas mining, the West Virginia incident should at least make us question the self-interested safety claims of energy companies and more aggressively pursue truly green energy solutions.

But what’s more, it appears the disaster in West Virginia might not have been as widespread were it not for the privatization of the region’s water system. The state’s water service is now owned and operated by West Virginia American, a subsidiary of American Water Works—the largest private water company in the nation. According to a 2001 report by Public Citizen (PDF), since privatization not only have West Virginia residents seen their water bills increase—66.5 percent over a decade, with 15 rate increases during that period—but the company consolidated water treatment plants, from 26 down to nine. It’s not hard to conclude that were it not for this consolidation—meaning, were fewer West Virginians getting their water from the single large plant on the Elk River that was contaminated—the chemical spill crisis in the state would not be as severe. Consolidating plants may make sense for profits but not for public safety.

There were other reasons for the consolidation. “These nine counties were placed on a centralized water source due to a lack of clean drinking water in their communities after being impacted from coal mining,” says Johanna de Gaffenreid of the West Virginia CARE Campaign and Clean Water Hub. In addition, de Gaffenreid explains, there was a “lack of Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act enforcement from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.”

In fact, just last week, West Virginia’s Democrat Governor Earl Ray Tomblin bragged in his State of the State that he would “never back down from the EPA because of its misguided policies on coal.” (Has Tomblin been drinking the Tea Party's polluted Kool-Aid?) The West Virginia disaster reminds us why government regulation and oversight of industry is invaluable.

And if we don’t invest in those regulations, by for instance regularly inspecting tanks that hold toxic chemicals right near major water sources, we may all end up paying later. Not just with our health, but with our taxpayer dollars, too—the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Guard and other taxpayer-funded public emergency response systems that we necessarily rely on when private companies screw up.

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We don’t yet know whether this tank had been inspected specifically and what oversight Freedom Industries was subject to in general, but Tea Party Republican types trouncing the EPA and other government regulation bodies as an unnecessary incursion into corporate “freedom” should seriously rethink that objection.

After the leak, a defensive Gov. Tomblin insisted, “This was not a coal company incident. This was a chemical company incident.” Nice try, Governor, but arguably the cause is even broader—this is a corporate leak, caused by greedy companies fighting regulation and expanding privatization while taking greater and greater risks with public health and safety. How many of our fellow human beings have to suffer before we realize that the aggressive pursuit of dirty energy, water privatization and anti-government anti-regulation is putting our whole country on the wrong track?