W. Va.’s water-poisoning plant hasn’t been inspected in 23 years


You’d probably agree with me that 1991 was a long time ago. George Bush was the president then — not George W. Bush but George H.W. Bush, the 41st president. It would be another 19 years until our beloved Saints would finally win a Super Bowl. A lot of today’s pop stars, like Miley Cyrus, weren’t even born yet.

And 1991 was also, believe it or not, the last year that a regulator visited and inspected the West Virginia plant belonging to a company called Freedom Industries, the plant were a leak from a riverside tank holding a highly toxic coal cleaning chemical has shut off drinking water to 300,000 people. Do that math — that’s 23 years since anyone in authority looked at what Freedom Industries was doing down by the Elk River. If there’s a silver lining — if such a thing is even possible — in this poisoning of a major water supply, it is that a) no one has died in this reckless incident, although some were reportedly sickened, and b) that the episode has shown a light on a staggering failurte of environmental regulation.

West Virginia law does not require inspections for chemical storage facilities — only for production facilities.

Some other states do require inspections of chemical storage facilities. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he was working with Randy Huffman, the secretary of the State Department of Environmental Protection, to come up with recommendations aimed at avoiding future leaks.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported Sunday that a team of experts from the United States Chemical Safety Board asked the state three years ago to create a new program to prevent accidents and releases in the Kanawha Valley, known as Chemical Valley.

That came after investigation of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W.Va. No program was produced, and another team from the same board is expected to arrive Monday to investigate this accident.

Critics say the problems are widespread in a state where the coal and chemical industries, which drive much of West Virginia’s economy and are powerful forces in the state’s politics, have long pushed back against tight federal health, safety and environmental controls.

The Freedom Industries fiasco spotlights a couple of things about environmental protection — or maybe our lack of environmental protection — in this country. For one thing, while many citizens tend to focus on Washington and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the reality is that most potentially hazardous activities are regulated at the state and not the federal level. And most statehouses in this country are political cesspools, where big businesses and their hired lobbyists hold an inordinate amount of sway. In West Virginia, those businesses tend to be coal and chemical plants, and they have been very successful at keep those pesky regulators out of their hair.

The other important point to know is that whether it’s the West Virginia state capital of Charleston or the corridors of Congress in Washington, D.C., there are legislators — many of them Republicans, but not all of them — who continue to insist that the problem is not too little regulation but too much. As a result, they are pushing for even fewer inspections, fewer laws and rules on the books, and fewer dollars for agencies like the EPA. That is a case of the free market — as presumably celebrated by the owners of Freedom Industries — being a little too free for my taste, and for yours. The need for thousands of West Virginia residents to drink bottled water this week is clearly a case of the chickens coming home to roost.

For more from the New York Times on lax environmental regulations in West Virginia: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/13/us/critics-say-chemical-spill-highlights-lax-west-virginia-regulations.html?_r=0

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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