How To Head Off Another Elk River Crisis

The Elk River chemical disaster, which unfolded a year and four days ago, is one of those crises too terrible to waste.   Here are five surprising lessons we need to learn from the spill, which contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians:

  1. Yes, blame the company that let the chemicals spill – but don’t stop there.  Six Freedom Industries officials and the company itself have been indicted --and rightly so.  An FBI affidavit filed in the case shows that some company officials knew for some time that the tank that held the chemicals was old, hadn’t been thoroughly inspected and could fail, and they also knew the containment dike around the tank was faulty. The company fdid not provide the state environmental protection agency with a detailed groundwater protection plan, as required by state law.  But state officials should have known that and demanded the plan.  Too few state and federal inspections, lax oversight and weak state and federal laws contributed to the crisis.
  2. We need strong laws and the political will to enforce them.  Some people claim that overregulation chokes industry growth. In this case, the laws – meaning, the federal Toxics Substances Control Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and other statutes that govern chemical facilities – were weak and full of loopholes. They didn’t provide regulators with sufficient authority to obtain critical health and safety data information or require state inspections. Also, according to Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board made multiple recommendations to West Virginia state officials to work with the local health department and come up with a plan to prevent chemical accidents and require more inspections.  The state didn’t do it, and the law didn’t require it.  

    Last year, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) persuaded their colleagues on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to pass a bill to require more state inspections for chemical storage facilities. But this measure stalled before the full Senate could act on it, and it hasn’t moved through the House at all. The West Virginia legislature passed a law to tighten up source water protection standards and to strengthen above-ground storage tank rules for chemical facilities.  But, as Ward reports in The Gazette, the state’s waterways are still plagued by frequent chemical spills.  

    The nation needs stronger laws, not weaker ones and elected officials dedicated to enforcing them. At the very least, Congress should pass a comprehensive reform of the law governing toxic chemicals in commerce so that regulators have public health data about the safety of chemicals.  Health studies had not been required for the chemical that comprised most of the spill – 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM.

  3. Public officials must take a “better safe than sorry approach” to informing the public. As chronicled in Environmental Health Perspectives, Rahul Gupta, the executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, admitted that the spill was “a case study in what not to do in terms of risk communication.” Public health officials lifted their “do not use” order for municipal water too soon. They declared the water safe to drink, then reversed that advice and said it was unfit for pregnant women and children. These missteps fueled mistrust of the government.
  4. The Elk River spill is really about dependence on coal, a dirty fuel.   The chemical MCHM is used to wash dirt and other impurities off coal.  Coal mining and associated development have driven the economy of West Virginia for generations.  But mining coal has also brought about devastating environmental damage, including strip mining and mountaintop mining, polluted streams and rivers and many other chemical spills, leaks and explosions. The Elk River catastrophe stands as a stark reminder that it’s past time to move to renewable energy sources such as solar power and wind power, which don’t taint water or pollute the air.
  5. In times of crisis and in day-to-day advocacy, grassroots activists and organizers are the real heroes.  Time and time again, grassroots activists organize to help their fellow citizens. As Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) executive director Janet Keating points out in her op-ed in the Charleston Gazette on the anniversary of the Elk River disaster, grassroots groups worked with the National Guard to bring clean water to thousands of citizens during the disaster.  They continue to act as watchdogs to keep the state legislature and coal and chemical companies on course.  

The biggest lesson of the Elk River disaster is one we have heard over and over – that when we protect the environment, we protect our health.   We’ve heard it – but are we really listening?  As the most anti-environmental Congressional session in decades convenes, we should make sure we heed the lessons of Elk River. We should follow the lead of Janet Keating and her colleagues and stand up, speak out and hold our elected officials accountable for meaningful change.

After all, this democracy isn’t a spectator sport. 

CC Photo Courtesy of Flickr User West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church

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