ETA: It has occurred to me only just now that this post would have better had it been titled “America: rRuck Yeah!”
You have probably already read about the horrible chemical spill in West Virginia last Thursday, which the New York Times has a stunner headline: Critics Say Chemical Spill Highlights Lax West Virginia Regulations. Oh, really? (You can read lots of good posts on this and previous environmental and labor disputes at Lawyers, Guns and Money—you can start looking at Erik Loomis’ posts as he also has great series along the lines of ‘this day in labor history’.)
300,000 were left with poisoned drinking water (coming out of the tap!) after specialty chemical-producer Freedom Industries spilled some 5,000 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol into the Kanawha Valley’s water treatment intake near Charleston. The water remains clear although poisonous, but smells helpfully like licorice. Also, boiling it doesn’t help.
Obviously this logo is but a minor blot on the company’s record vs. its actual malfeasance but uh…it’s a crime against good design, since my daughters looked at it and asked, “what’s rReedom Industries?” Also really looks as if it should have the smoking twin towers photoshopped into the background, and perhaps a big glistening tear into the eagle’s eye, and it would be a good blog header for Pamela Geller. Hey, remember her? (She doesn’t follow good trigger safety at all, I totally just learned this. But she’s a teetotaler also, so.)
No charges have been filed against Freedom Industries, the company that owns the plant, but the United States attorney’s office has already begun an investigation into the spill.
“Whenever you have a discharge of a pollutant or a hazardous substance you have potential violation of the environmental laws,” said Booth Goodwin, the United States attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, according to a news report on WVVA.com.
This is not the first chemical accident to hit West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley.
After an explosion at a West Virginia chemical plant owned by Bayer CropScience killed two employees in 2008, a 2010 congressional investigation found that managers refused for several hours to tell emergency responders the nature of the blast or the toxic chemical it released. It also found that they later misused a law intended to keep information from terrorists to try to stop federal investigators from learning what had happened. The plant manufactured the same chemical that was processed in a giant 1985 explosion that killed 10,000 in Bhopal, India.
West Virginia is also no stranger to accidents in the coal industry. [!—ed. note]
In 2012, federal prosecutors charged David C. Hughart, a top executive at Massey Energy, a West Virginia coal operator, with a felony count and a second misdemeanor conspiracy count related to the deaths of 29 coal miners in a 2009 explosion at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine. Prosecutors said that Mr. Hughart and others knowingly conspired to violate safety laws at Massey’s mines and worked to hide those violations by giving advance warnings of surprise inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
In 2009, an investigation by The New York Times found that hundreds of workplaces in West Virginia had violated pollution laws without paying fines. In interviews at the time, current and former West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection employees said their enforcement efforts had been undermined by bureaucratic disorganization; a departmental preference to let polluters escape punishment if they promised to try harder; and a revolving door of regulators who left for higher-paying jobs at the companies they once policed.
In June 2009, four environmental groups petitioned the E.P.A. to take over much of West Virginia’s handling of the Clean Water Act, citing a “nearly complete breakdown” in the state.
“Historically, there had been a questionable enforcement ethic,” said Matthew Crum, a former state mining director at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Cindy Rank, chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy’s mining committee, said that the coal lobby has wielded great influence in crafting state environmental regulations. “Accidents are always preventable. For the most part I think that’s true in these disasters that keep happening,” she said. She recalled negotiations over a groundwater protection bill from the early 1990s. “We swallowed hard and allowed the coal industry to get away with a lot in that bill,” she said.