West Virginia cannot catch a break this year.
Early last week, just over 100,000 gallons of frothing chemical used to prepare coal spilled and polluted another water source in West Virginia. Although no immediate threat to drinking water is expected due to the spill’s location, this marks yet another page in the nation’s troubled relationship with chemical waste management. This is the third major spill West Virginia has experienced since the start of 2014.
Following a 10,000 gallon toxic chemical spill near the capitol of Charleston on January 9, over 300,000 people were told not to use their tap water for any purpose. President Obama declared a federal emergency. Although the water has been declared ‘non-detect’ by scientists, even lawmakers refuse to deem the water safe and are hesitant to use it.
Remember the viral Olympic yellow water photo from Sochi? Hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens experienced water as dangerous this month and it went largely undiscussed.
February 3rd brought another disaster, in which 82,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of tainted water into the Dan River which resulted in arsenic levels four times the safe level in local water basins. Coal ash is considered extremely toxic and is expected to have significant ecological effects for years to come.
(The current U.S. law on chemical safety was passed 37 years ago and is seen by both parties as ineffective. As a result, over 62,000 industrial compounds are used in U.S. industries daily with little knowledge of the health effects that these chemicals have.)
In what may be the most ironic legislative timing in history, just two days after the massive spill in Charleston, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that removes requirements for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review and update hazardous waste disposal requirements by a vote of 225 to 188.
What were the safeguards to prevent dangerous chemicals from the people of West Virginia? State inspectors found that a single cinder block and one 50 pound bag of absorbent powder were the only protections that Freedom Industries had in place at the site.
It’s a lack of funding and oversight from the EPA allowed such conditions to exist. Although this example may be an extreme, Angela Rosser, executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told The New York Times, “We need to look at our entire system and give some serious thought to making some serious reform and valuing our natural resources over industry interests.” The lack of oversight and regulation of these issues highlights the backward way we approach waste management in the U.S.
While the significance of increased research and legislation to mandate effective safeguards against future spills is needed I doubt that it will surely be discussed in coming months by local and federal lawmakers. West Virginia will surely be forgotten if but as an anecdote.
Although it is widely known that a large number of spills are not covered in the media, many states allow for companies to keep the spills and accidents to go unreported or disclosed to the public. In fact, it is reported that over 6,500 incidents involving chemical and oil spills, accidents, or leaks happened within the U.S. in 2010 — a rate of 18 incidents per day.
What long-term impact will these spills have on the environment and on human health? We honestly don’t know. Of the tens of thousands of chemicals that are authorized for use within the U.S. by corporations, we have very little understanding of the impact that these chemicals have because there is no required testing or examination. When spills occur, such as the MCHM spill in West Virginia this month, scientists literally play a guessing game when trying to attempt to determine what levels of exposure could be safe for humans because we simply don’t know what levels of exposure, if any, pose long-term risks.
Special issue campaigns are successful in large part because we are able to identify with them on an emotional and intellectual level. We all love pandas and will forever associate them with the World Wildlife Fund; Sarah McLaughlin and animal pounds will forever be together in our hearts; and athletes competing in the Special Olympics allow these respective organizations to remain in our memories and ultimately change social and political policy. When it comes to issues of chemical regulation, there is no sexy face or cute animal to rally behind and because of this it is extremely difficult to challenge the status quo and assemble enough support to provide meaningful change.
Cleanliness of water from dangerous toxic chemicals should not be a privilege in the 21st century. The ability of our families, neighbors, and fellow citizens to rely on their water supplies to bathe, cook, clean, and drink should not be threatened by lawmakers who refuse to recognize the dangers that unregulated and unknown chemical compounds pose. It is long overdue for lawmakers to recognize that the interests of public health and environmental protection are considerations that must carry the same weight as the lofty donations that major chemical companies make to their campaigns.
Do you enjoy nature, having drinking water, or basic hygiene? If so, this is an issue that you need to be aware of and be willing to voice your concerns to your lawmakers. Although you and I will be able to take a shower later today, drink from the tap or fountain, and make that morning pot of coffee we need to get through the day, thousands in West Virginia are still unsure whether doing these daily tasks will threaten their health. How can we claim to live in the most advanced and powerful society when our government is unable to protect us from chemical spills that could be reduced substantially if not entirely by increased regulation and new standards for the storage and removal of chemical waste?