The company that poisoned West Virginia’s drinking water decided that public health was less important than its bottom line, while politicians stood by.
by Nicole Colson
Would you drink the water coming out of West Virginia’s Elk River?
In a sane world, no one would hesitate to answer “yes” to such a question. In the richest country in the world, access to clean water ought to be a sure bet — even in a more rural or traditionally impoverished area.
But as we know, starting two weeks ago, water from the Elk River — piped to residents of West Virginia’s capital of Charleston and a total of nine counties — was undrinkable for days after a chemical spill, and the long-term consequences of the disaster remain unknown.
On January 9, a tank at a terminal owned by Freedom Industries began leaking 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCMH — a chemical used in the deceptively named “clean coal” process. The leak was only discovered when residents began complaining of a strange odor coming from the company’s facility alongside the Elk River.
When investigators checked out the site, they discovered not only the leak from the tank, but that a containment dike designed to keep chemicals from leeching into the ground and the river was full of cracks and holes, allowing toxic liquid to gush out in 4-foot-wide stream.
Inspectors from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) noticed that someone at the company had tried to stop the leak — by “[setting] up one cinder block and [using] one 50-pound bag of some sort of safety absorbent powder to try to block the chemical flow,” according to the Charleston Gazette.
“This was a Band-Aid approach,” DEP air quality inspector Mike Kolb told the Gazette. “It was apparent that this was not an event that had just happened.”
In other words, someone at Freedom Industries knew that MCMH was leaking out of the terminal — but rather than contact government officials or take immediate steps to shut down the facility and bring in emergency crews to make sure that the Elk River wasn’t polluted, they made a conscious decision that public health was less important than Freedom Industries’s bottom line.
When DEP officials and a local fire coordinator first arrived on the scene, they asked company executive Dennis P. Farrell if there were any leaks or other issues they should be aware of. “As far as he knew,” Kolb said, “there weren’t any problems.”
It was only after an employee pulled Farrell aside for a talk that the inspectors were informed of the 400-square-foot pool of chemicals that had leaked from the tank into a block containment area.
In all, an estimated 7,500 gallons of MCMH was released into the river. And Freedom Industries didn’t bother until January 21 to tell regulators that 300 gallons of PPH, a chemical solvent, were also released by the leak into the Elk River. According to the Charleston Gazette, “[H]ealth impacts of [PPH] remain unclear, and Freedom Industries has claimed the exact identity of the substance is ‘proprietary.’”
The biggest lesson of this entirely unnatural disaster should be evident by now: Don’t trust the polluters to police themselves or clean up their messes.
The spill affected some 300,000 residents of the nine counties dependent on the Elk River for their water supply. Bottled water was trucked in after supplies in supermarkets ran low, and at one point, one Wal-Mart reportedly called in armed guards to safeguard a delivery of bottled water because of fears of “riots.” (Naturally, one of the world’s most profitable companies couldn’t be bothered to use its substantial resources to give water away for free to a struggling community.)
Even after the water was declared “safe” by officials and the private utility West Virginia American Water restarted operations, more than 100 people sought emergency treatment at area hospitals after taking ill. On January 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that, “out of an abundance of caution,” pregnant women should continue to drink bottled water.
Asked at a press conference on January 20 whether residents could feel safe drinking their tap water, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin — who is well-known among ecology activists for backing legislation favorable to coal and chemical companies at the expense of the environment — had the nerve to reply, “I’m not a scientist. It’s your decision, if you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking with this water, then use bottled water.”
So much of the media coverage was about whether the water was safe to drink again that important questions remained largely unasked — for example, why was Freedom Industries allowed to store large quantities of a hazardous chemical near a major source of drinking water.
The Elk River facility hadn’t been inspected since at least 2001. It “flew under the regulatory radar,” according to the Washington Post. Randy Huffman, cabinet secretary for the DEP, told the Post: “I think that the loophole that this facility fell into is because it was not a hazardous material, it flew under the radar.”
But how could a chemical that rendered tap water undrinkable for five days be classified as “not a hazardous material?”
More than a year ago, Freedom Industries reported in paperwork filed with the government that it was keeping thousands of gallons of MCMH next to the Elk River, according to the Gazette. But government regulators never questioned whether that was appropriate, or if it could pose a health or safety risk to the thousands who depend on the river for their water supply.
We should also be asking whether Freedom Industries should be trusted to operate in the future. After the spill into the Elk, the company moved its operations to Nitro, a small town along the Kanawha River, some 14 miles to the south. When state inspectors paid a visit, they found five violations at the backup facility.
And don’t expect Freedom Industries to pay to clean up the Elk River mess either. On January 17, the company’s board voted to file for bankruptcy — a move designed to shield it from liability and damages related to the spill — and even from having to pay for environmental clean up.
In an especially galling move, Freedom Industries’s bankruptcy filings show that two corporate entities called “VF Funding” and “Mountaineer Funding” are offering to lend as much as $5 million to keep Freedom operating during its “reorganization” Mountaineer Funding was incorporated on January 17, 2014 — and its sole “member” is J. Clifford Forrest, a Pennsylvania coal magnate and … yes … owner of Freedom Industries when the Elk River accident occurred.
It’s a giant loophole that, if it’s allowed to proceed, will let Forrest shield his “investment” in Freedom Industries while avoiding liability.
Meanwhile, Freedom Industries’s bankruptcy attorneys are already suggesting that the leak wasn’t the fault of the company at all, but perhaps was caused by break in a water line that froze, resulting in “an object piercing upwards through the base” of the tank. As Businessweek magazine wondered in a rare bit of skepticism toward corporate power, “Hard to say if the court will buy that. Shouldn’t steel tanks containing dangerous chemicals be able to withstand the consequences of winter weather?”
Don’t expect the federal government to rush through changes that could prevent accidents like these in the future.
On January 14, House Speaker John Boehner (whose orange hue suggests he’s personally familiar with the effects of chemical accidents) said at a news conference that there are already too many environmental laws on the books, and people shouldn’t use this accident to push for more. Boehner added that the real problem was the lack of inspections at the Elk River plant. But you won’t hear him or any other Republican calling for more federal inspectors or authorizing the funding to make such jobs a reality.
That’s par for the course for a Republican free marketeer. But the Democrats’ hands aren’t so clean. The Obama administration’s focus on promoting “clean coal” has helped create a new and often unregulated “Gold Rush” for companies like Freedom Industries.
Meanwhile, working people in West Virginia are left to pay the price — and worry about the effect on their health and communities. As National Geographic noted, this is nothing new. The Kanawha River Valley has long been known as “Chemical Valley”:
“Even before last week’s chemical spill fouled tap water in nine counties in West Virginia … it was not unusual to find black water running from kitchen faucets in homes outside Charleston. Or to see children with chronic skin rashes. Or bathtub enamel eaten away, leaving locals to wonder what the same water was doing to their teeth.
“‘Welcome to our world,’ says Vivian Stockman, 52, a longtime resident of rural Roane County, north of Charleston, the state capital, and an activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition…
“The coal-cleansing chemical that spilled from Freedom Industries’ storage tank into the Elk River … is only the latest insult in what for some has been a lifetime of industrial accidents that have poisoned groundwater, spewed toxic gas emissions, and caused fires, explosions and other disasters that neither state nor federal regulators have been able to protect against.”
Nor will they be able to, as long as the bottom line of a company like Freedom Industries is prioritized over the health and safety of ordinary people.
Blogger Eric Waggoner, who was born in Charleston and whose parents still live there, captured the gut-level anger that so many people affected by the spill feel today:
“To hell with every greed-head operator who flocked here throughout history because you wanted what we had, but wanted us to go underground and get it for you. To hell with you for offering above-average wages in a place filled with workers who’d never had a decent shot at employment or education, and then treating the people you found here like just another material resource — suitable for exploiting and using up, and discarding when they’d outlived their usefulness. To hell with you for rigging the game so that those wages were paid in currency that was worthless everywhere but at the company store, so that all you did was let the workers hold it for a while, before they went into debt they couldn’t get out of.
“To hell with you all for continuing, as coal became chemical, to exploit the lax, poorly enforced safety regulations here, so that you could do your business in the cheapest manner possible by shortcutting the health and quality of life not only of your workers, but of everybody who lives here. To hell with every operator who ever referred to West Virginians as ‘our neighbors.’
“To hell with every single screwjob elected official and politico under whose watch it all went on, who helped write those lax regulations and then turned away when even those weren’t followed. To hell with you all, who were supposed to be stewards of the public interest, and who sold us out for money, for political power. To hell with every one of you who decided that making life convenient for business meant making life dangerous for us. To hell with you for making us the eggs you had to break in order to make breakfast.”