By ROBERT MALIN / 01.17.14 - The chemical contamination of the Elk River with a coal cleaning solvent 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) by Freedom Industries outside of Charleston West Virginia in chemical valley on January 10th http://wapo.st/1gpHlEA was an accident waiting to happen. This problem was set up by 30 years of deregulation and business friendly politics where the coal and chemical industries were given special permission to bend or ignore regulations while promising local communities that public health wasn't being put at risk. As soon as the spill was reported, some three hours after it began, local residents sprung into action led by the Sierra Club and other activists in the area like OVEC- Organizing Voices and Empowering Communities - sprung into action. (OVEC: www.ohvec.org note donations accepted).
Immediately there were panicked complaints from local residents, particularly mothers who had washed their babies in it before hearing about the ban and restaurants where tainted water was inadvertently served.
From the beginning, there were gaps in information provided by Freedom Industries on how much was spilled, how long it had been leaking and what was being done. Problems in the remediation and distribution plans were obvious when it was revealed that tthe anti-EPA Governor Tomplin had no plan in place. (more on this history at West Virginia Spill: Where “Regulation” Is a Dirty Word, Shady Businesses Flourish http://bit.ly/KayIU4 via @BillMoyersHQ) As of this writing 150,000 people, almost the total population of Providence, have bad water, but it is questionable at best if any of the water for the 300,000 people is safe. The material Safety Data sheet has so many “unknowns” that it is hard to know what a safe standard is.
And now this—because the local authorities had not prepared and the EPA was streamlined putting testing under the Center for Disease Control (CDC) while reducing their funding, the CDC) had to come up with a protocol on the spot using inadequate information. This resulted in testing for the wrong version of the chemical before lifting the plan. “A key corporate study used by federal health officials to set a screening level for "Crude MCHM" in the West Virginia American Water system actually tested a pure form of the material's main ingredient, and may not account for potential toxicity of other components, documents and interviews with public health officials showed this morning” (http://www.wvgazette.com/News/201401170026?page=1). See also Key CDC Test Focused on Different Form of Chemical - The Charleston Gazette (www.wvgazette.com).
Paula Swearingin, an activist who had come to New England this summer to help us Shut Down Brayton Point,
http://youtu.be/xF4pCYigksQ, put it this way. “Dealing with contaminated water and polluted air has become a way of life for the people of Appalachia. This is just the first time a leak of this magnitude has been discovered. Industries across Appalachia are allowed to totally disregard public health and safety. There is little or no support from our leadership and government regulatory agencies. Somebody needs to take a hard look at the destruction that is happening here. We are tired of living in a toxic wasteland. This is America and we should be allowed to feel safe in our own homes. We are tired of begging for basic human rights.”
There was no time to ask how this happened, they basically knew it was a product of long term neglect, as the need to get water to 300,000 residents, one fifth of the state, was a huge enough task. At first only a couple of bottles were being handed out at a time in a haphazard manner which was obviously inadequate (http://www.wsaz.com/home/headlines/Water-Arrives-in-Boone-County-WVa-239697251.html#.UtFQqvcjQWE.facebook). On the “help thread” I was on (presently at 900 posts) I saw regular working people network to get out the correct information, figure out where to get water to people who needed it and deliver to people in need until the FEMA “Water Buffalos” could get in place. Janie Poe, of Code Pink and OVEC posted this on Jan 13th “just got off the phone with the guard, begging for water for us-calling Boone Co EMS to ask them to work with us>>just give us the water for deliverly.” WalMart “kicked in” by doubling the guard on their bottled water, so many residents had to buy the water themselves and cover expenses for gas out-of-pocket. People even borrowed money to help out others that were in more desperate need never asking for any credit.
These volunteers were the Minutemen on the job that filled in the gap from the beginning and are still filling in the gaps until everyone is sure that the water is really safe. The feeling is that some officials want to get rid of any oversight or assistance as soon as possible so they can go back to business as usual, which we now know means disregarding the health and safety of the community. Activists have vowed not to let this happen and have planned a candlelight vigil on Tuesday. http://action.sierraclub.org/site/PageServer?pagename=event_FLD_WV_CharlestonWaterVigil_SL&autologin=true&s_src=214ACOAE06
In an act of Orwellean hubris, Speaker of the House John Boehner from neighboring Cincinatti Ohio where the Elk River drains, accused the EPA and Pres. Obama of causing this. In fact, Boehner is trying to defund the EPA and Obama is trying to strengthen regulations (http://rt.com/usa/hazardous-toxic-waste-law-445/). There is an new Attorney General Booth Goodwin and he may be aggressive on pursuing this; he has already appointed a deputy to “get to the bottom of this” (Community meets to discuss action plan for chemical spill - The Charleston Gazette www.wvgazette.comCHARLESTON. More than 100 people agreed on Wednesday night to come together to demand stronger protections for West Virginia's waterways.
While activists were mourning over the pain and suffering of the people, nature and the animals dependent on the water and fretted about what was going to become of all of the water bottles that were now all over West Virginia; politicians postured for future finger-pointing and gave out confusing, complicated instructions. Tempers flared regularly as the Water Dept. issued a boil water advisory and then residents find out that boiling will combine the chlorine to make toxic substances. While the ban is lifted it is not safe for pregnant women, small children, the elderly or anyone who is sick raising the question- just who is the water safe for?
Charleston Mayor Jones did not inspire confidence in his appearance on National Public Radio as someone who was really on top of things as he “imagined” everything was OK if the Health Director said it was OK (translation don’t blame me).
BLOCK: But how do you convince people that the water supply is, in fact, safe?
JONES: People want to drink water and people want to bathe in it. People want to use it to cook with and they're looking to take the word. And there have been a lot of precautions. We have a very capable health director here in the county. He's watching this very closely. This water is being tested by the hour, by the day. And I believe if they say to go ahead, I would take their word for it and I think the public, at large, will, too.
Then he rolled out his few bad apples scenario.
BLOCK: I want to ask you, Mayor Jones, about regulation and, in particular, about this company. There are reports that this tank hadn't been inspected since 1991. Three years ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended that West Virginia start programs to work on preventing accidents just like this one. No program like that was ever started. Has West Virginia become too friendly with industry at the expense of public safety?
JONES: No, I don't think so. If there was laxity in what you're talking about, we'll find it out. What puzzled me about this was that the three tanks were right along the river and there was a wall around them. And that there were holes in the wall, the wall had been breached and the company was just sold.
Puzzled him? Really? Jones is a Mayor of the capitol city with a chemical storage plant one mile north of the water supply that hasn't been inspected since 1991 and he's puzzled? Doesn't sound like the most curious person.
Water safety and security is an issue for every community - people from New England, the Mid-west, even Bopal, India, the site of the greatest chemical disasters in history, reached out with support and in a spirit of solidarity. What this brings to mind is just how would this be handled if this happened in Rhode Island? With global warming inundating the soil with water and our history of toxic chemicals buried all over the state it makes me wonder what is in store for us. How safe is the Blackstone watershed or the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed really? Can we afford to defund the EPA or state government agencies charged with keeping us safe? Are we prepared or will we be left flat footed when something like this happens here? We also must stand by our friends in West Virginia until they get justice for the damages from theses years of abuse. No one should have to be injured, poisoned or die to keep the lights on.
http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Georgia-Pacific - you can find Freedom Industries under "Coal Products."