On Jan. 9, a spill at Freedom Industries discharged a toxic chemical into the Elk River in Kanawha County about three miles from the center of Charleston and one mile upstream from American Water’s water treatment plant. As a result, an area on the order of 8,000 miles (the size of New Jersey) was impacted and 300,000 West Virginians, or about 15 percent of the state’s population, lost their water supply for drinking and even bathing.
The immediate reaction was understandably to blame Freedom Industries for this horrific event. However, with a little thought one can figure out that equally to blame are West Virginia and Kanawha County. West Virginia apparently required no permits or inspections of the chemical plant contrary to best practices in the industry. Kanawha County allowed the chemical plant to be built in a highly inappropriate location having no zoning that would exclude such. It does, however, require permits of pawnbrokers and adults-only establishments, neither of which are deadly health hazards. Go figure.
Interestingly, the state Department of Environmental Protection cited Freedom Industries for “causing statutory air pollution by discharging methylcyclohexane methanol into the air.” Say what? Apparently, the plant is not allowed to smell bad, but discharging toxic chemicals into the drinking water supply is not violating any regulations.
This disaster was 99 percent avoidable with proper engineering controls used all over the nation. Why are our cars in West Virginia required to be safety-inspected yearly and restaurants health-inspected monthly, but a chemical plant with a capacity of millions of gallons of toxic chemicals one mile from a water treatment plant is not required to have a permit or be inspected?
Welcome to “Wild and Wonderful” – now “Closed for Business” in half of the state. West Virginia is dead last in everything, because as we know “Mountain Men are Free” – to not follow industry best practices and to blatantly endanger the health of West Virginia citizens. Oh, and by the way, Wheeling is considering a fracking wastewater transport facility on the Ohio River also one mile upstream from its water plant. Hopefully, Wheeling has more concern for its citizens than do WVDEP and Kanawha County.
Unfortunately, as someone pointed out to me recently, a major problem is that most West Virginians do not really understand that they are living in an industrial state with deplorable conditions that would not be tolerated in other states. Wake up, West Virginians! Don’t you want to be free to drink clean water and not fracking water?
This problem is nothing new. The Environmental Protection Agency was aware of the potential for toxic chemical release in the Kanawha Valley 30 years ago as is made evident in two reports — “NSCEP Publication 300R84101. Overview of Environmental Pollution in the Kanawha Valley, West Virginia (1984)” and “NSCEP Publication 903R87106 Kanawha Valley Toxics Screening Study Final Report (1987). Yes, 30 years ago.
The response that the EPA got from the then-director of the state Department of Health, Clark Hansberger, was that “West Virginia is a little tired of federal and international hysteria over the chemical industry. We’ve always worked with industry to control industrial and public health problems. We feel we do a pretty good job.” I imagine that there are 300,000 West Virginians without water that might want to disagree with that.
Why hasn’t the DEP identified and then required Freedom Industries and other such facilities that store, treat or dispose of hazardous chemicals to apply for a RCRA permit as EPA told them to do 30 years ago?
Hopefully, the EPA will figure out some way to file suit against West Virginia and Kanahwa County under the Clean Water Act for the disaster. Maybe even the U.S. Congress could pass legislation called “West Virginia, Clean Up Your Act.”
— Don Burgess writes from Bolivar