Crisis in West Virginia

January 14, 2014

Last Thursday, 300,000 West Virginia residents were told not to use their water – not for drinking, not for bathing, not even after boiling it. A company called Freedom Industries spilled a chemical used for coal processing, which rendered the water untreatable. This incident is the latest example of the catastrophic consequences of lax oversight.

TOPLINES

Affordable, domestic energy is something we all want. So is clean drinking water.
We need to make sure that big corporations aren’t cutting corners or we’ll all end up without drinking water like the folks in West Virginia.
The chemical leak in West Virginia is just another example of what happens when we don’t enforce strong rules of the road for corporations that deal in dangerous substances and processes.
No oversight is bad for people, bad for families and bad for business. Deepwater Horizon devastated the half-billion dollar seafood industry in the Gulf and fishermen are still worried about the oil’s effect on their catches.
We’ve seen this all before: the Texas City refinery explosion, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Tennessee coal ash spill, and the Alberta tar sands oil spill just to name a few.

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PROBLEM IN A NUTSHELL

  • A chemical company called Freedom Industries released approximately 7,500 gallons of a coal-cleaning chemical called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) from tanks into the Elk River on Thursday.
  • Freedom Industries is located about 1.5 miles upstream from a drinking water intake used to supply water to the homes of about 300,000 West Virginians.
  • West Virginia American Water announced that MCHM-contaminated water cannot be treated, so residents were told not to use tap water for any purpose other than flushing toilets. Nine counties were affected and remain under a state of emergency.
  • Officials have cleared some areas to begin flushing out pipes and appliances that have had contact with contaminated water, but many areas remain under the no-use order.

LAX REGULATORY HISTORY

  • Freedom Industries filed paperwork that told state and local officials which chemicals were stored there and those officials were supposed to use that paperwork to develop emergency plans in the event of accidents such as leaks or explosions.
  • But it appears that once the officials got the forms, no such planning took place. State and local officials are still trying to figure out what levels of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol would be safe and how to clean up the amounts currently in the water supply.
  • Officials at OSHA had never inspected Freedom Industries. The agency began to examine Freedom Industries in 2009 as part of program to examine accidents involving amputations. During that inquiry OSHA inspectors discovered that Freedom Industries had been misclassified for that program and no further inspections were made.
  • State officials from the Department of Environmental Protection admitted that the leak prompted the department’s first visit to Freedom Industries in 20 years. The last time the facility was inspected it was used in a different capacity and had a different owner.
  • In 2011, federal experts urged the state of West Virginia to allow local authorities in the Kanawha Valley to create a program to prevent chemical accidents. The state has not granted the legal authority to allow local officials to create the program and local authorities did not allocate any funding for such a program either.
Category: Environment