4 Lessons From the West Virginia Chemical Spill (and #EcoTipTue)Posted February 3rd, 2014 by Katy Farber
300,000 people without access to water? Tanks that stored chemicals without regulation just upstream from a water treatment facility? Chemicals pouring into the Elk River, with confusing advisories and virtually no safety information on the specific effects of the chemicals?
We ask ourselves how this happened– and the answers are very clear. By not acting to protect one of our most important natural resources: fresh, clean water.
We are disturbed by the photos shared online of discolored water and worry about the health impacts on families. We can’t let this happen again, anywhere. We must heed the lessons from the West Virginia chemical spill.
Last week’s #EcoTipTue tweet chat was focused on the spill and the importance of protecting water for all communities. Joining us was the organization Clean Water Action and many interested in learning more about how this spill happened and what we can do to prevent them in the future. Here’s a recap of what we learned:
1. The spill was another Toxic Control Substances Act (TSCA) fail.
No one knew anything about the safety of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol because it was one of the 80,000 chemicals grandfathered into the Toxic Substances Control Act back in 1973– which allowed for the use of these chemicals with NO (or very little) safety research or data. That is why everyone was scratching their heads about the safe level of this chemical. No one knew it. The CDC went on old (and some say very flawed) data to decide what the acceptable levels were. Then they backtracked and said that pregnant women should not drink it. It is isn’t safe for pregnant women, is it safe for young children?
2. Coal fired plants use toxic chemicals like the one in this spill and these threaten drinking water regularly.
West Virginia, a state with fierce resistance to environmental regulations, has been racked with 5 major accidents from coal or chemicals in the last 8 years. Many leaders in this state pride themselves on fighting regulation from the EPA and have turned a blind eye to the health and welfare of its people. This article from National Geographic outlines the century of accidents and health effects of the coal and chemical industry. From black water coming out of faucets, to enamel being eaten away from bath tubs, the history is long. According to the article:
“The coal-cleansing chemical that spilled from Freedom Industries’storage tank into the Elk River last Thursday 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.”
While regulation is so sparse– no matter what the politics– the health of families in West Virginia has been and continues to be threatened.
3. We must focus on prevention.
One of the most basic jobs of a well functioning society is to protect the health of its people. This doesn’t happen with by accident. It happens when busy people speak up and fight for what’s right for regular people, working families.
Clean Water Action reminded us that in 2012 it was the 40 year anniversary of the Clean Water Act. There were arguments even then– in 1969, when president Eisenhower vetoed the bill saying that protecting water is a local issue. But what about how water travels across state lines– and how we are all connected via waterways. And what happens when one state provides safe and healthy water, and in another, citizens suffer health consequences? Isn’t our country’s government supposed to protect all citizens?
4. Our leaders and regular people have the power to change this.
Just yesterday West Virginia citizens demonstrated at the Charleston Civic Center, one hour before Governor Earl Ray Tomblin was set to address the West Virginia Coal Association Symposium. And just a few days ago 3 senators (two from West Virginia) proposed a bill (called Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act) aimed at preventing leaks and spills like what happened on the Elk River, following proposed state regulations.
This will not be easy, especially when the political culture is to closely tied to the coal industry. We have the power in this moment to make a difference in the health and lives of thousands of families. More than half of Americans feel that more public water supply safety regulation is needed. The tide has turned. It is our to protect public water for generations to come– no matter what state you live in.
Please join us for this week’s #EcoTipTue chat on Toxin Free Baby! We’ll be joined by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and Earth Mama Angel Baby. We’ll be discussing how to keep your new baby safe from toxic chemicals in many baby products. Join us on Twitter Tuesday, February 4th at 9pm ET.