The D.C. media continued to demonstrate its disconnection from issues concerning Americans in the portion of the country located outside Interstate Highway 495 when its Sunday morning chatterati confabs assiduously avoided any discussion of the chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia. There was plenty of information worthy of a few moments, but none deemed worthy of broadcast time which might otherwise be devoted to interminable speculation on the political ramifications of speculated political implications of endless political assumptions. Meanwhile back in West Virginia.
There’s a lesson here about government regulations. Those “burdensome” government regulation which are “stifling employment,” and “hurting the economy,” to hear the Republicans tell it.
“The spill of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in the coal industry, occurred on Thursday on the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia’s capital and largest city, upriver from the plant run by West Virginia American Water.” [YahooNews] (January 10, 2014)
The good news is that the stuff isn’t highly lethal. The bad news is that the preliminary reports don’t tell us exactly how much of the the stuff was accidentally spilled into the river, the current estimate is 5,000 gallons. Those 5,000 gallons flowed into the water supply in nine West Virginia counties. Charleston, WV’s 51,000 residents are still struggling.
Additionally, the incident gives us a glimpse of why environment regulations aren’t the “burdensome,” “hurtful,” “job killing” spikes in our national economic life.
(1) At some point the newspapers will report the cost of this spill. The cost of closed schools, closed restaurants, closed businesses, business revenue lost, earnings and wages lost. Events postponed, events cancelled.
“Downtown Charleston is dead,” Mayor Danny Jones said in an interview. “It’s not just my city, it’s nine counties. When you don’t have water you can drink or bathe in, you’re pretty much frozen solid.”
(Charleston Mayor) “Jones said hotels, restaurants and affiliated businesses were closed in the city of 51,000 people, which swells to about 125,000 on an average workday. A convention of mayors and city council members from around the state, scheduled to begin Sunday, has been canceled, he said.” [WaPo]
Common sense dictates that the economic costs of this chemical spill is going to be well beyond, far beyond, the cost of enforcing environmental regulations.
(2) Why do we have all these “burdensome” regulations when such accidents are rare events? That’s the point, the entire exercise is undertaken to insure that accidents are rare events. Yes, these events are rare, but when accidents do happen they are exceedingly expensive and harmful. Witness some recent examples:
In December 2008, the retaining wall on a coal ash pond failed, sending 1.7 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash slurry into the Emory River, and an adjacent residential area in Tennessee. (Later estimates were raised to 5 million cubic yards) The April 20, 2011 BP Deepwater Oil Spill poured more oil into the water than any other accident in U.S. history, and 11 workers lost their lives. The final effects of the destruction of the Fukushima Nuclear Power (March 2011) plant are still being tallied.
In August 2012 the Tennessee Valley Authority, owner of the Kingston facility, was judged liable for the damage caused by its coal ash spill. It had already spent $43 million to buy contaminated properties. The TVA’s litigation moved into new territory as plaintiffs were allowed to bring their individual cases to court. [Reuters/HuffPo]
The Deepwater Horizon incident cost BP $25 billion, not counting fines levied by the government as of July 2013. The corporation owes another $4.5 billion in fines. BP has set aside approximately $42 billion in estimated final costs. [PBS]
A insurance trade group associated with the West, Texas fertilizer plant that exploded in April 2013, estimated the cost of the 90 foot wide crater and adjacent damage at approximately $100 million. [AP/HuffPo]
Meanwhile back in West Virginia.
(3) An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There doesn’t seem to have been enough attention paid to preventing the contamination of the Elk River.
“Asked late last week how much planning county officials had done for a possible leak from Freedom Industries into the region’s water supply, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper was blunt.
“Not enough,” Carper said. But Carper also pointed the finger at the water company, saying West Virginia American certainly knew Freedom Industries was there and should have prepared for an accident like this one.” [WVGM]
If Kanawha County wasn’t as prepared as it should have been, how about federal inspections and enforcement?
OSHA began an inspection in November, 2009, resulting from industrial accident and injury reports, but found that the firm was misclassified for the inspection program implemented and the inspection never took place. [WVGM]
What of state Department of Environmental Protection? Because Freedom Industries was categorized as a storage (as opposed to a manufacturing facility) and because it created no emissions — it wasn’t on their radar. [WVGM]
At some point the U.S. Attorney will complete his investigation of the contaminant spill, and West Virginia American and its subsidiary Freedom Industries will discover what TEPCO, the TVA, BP and others have already known — it’s less expensive to create the safest possible industrial operations plan than it is to pay for the damages later.
It’s easy to be glib about industrial accidents, and contaminating chemical spills, and generalize about how statistically “safe” our energy and chemical sectors are. It’s easy to generalize about “burdensome” regulations, but much more difficult to explain away destroyed homes, lost revenue, undrinkable water, and economic damage when specific incidents highlight how important those regulations actually are.
The question we should be asking is NOT how to reduce regulations related to the use, storage, and safety of our chemical and energy operations, but how we can strengthen those regulations to prevent as many such accidents as possible. However, that’s precisely what the House did.
“As West Virginians were learning Thursday of a devastating chemical spill in the Elk River that has rendered water undrinkable for 300,000 people, the US House of Representatives was busy gutting federal hazardous-waste cleanup law.
The House passed the Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act that would ultimately eliminate requirements for the Environmental Protection Agency to review and update hazardous-waste disposal regulations in a timely manner, and make it more difficult for the government to compel companies that deal with toxic substances to carry proper insurance for cleanups, pushing the cost on to taxpayers.” [RT] (emphasis added)
The Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act passed 225-188, on January 9, 2014. [roll call 10] Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV2) voted in favor of the bill, Representatives Dina Titus (D-NV1) and Steven Horsford (D-NV4) voted against it. Representative Joe Heck (R-NV3) is recorded as not voting. Representative Amodei may wish to explain, why, when his fellow Americans in West Virginia were struggling to find potable water, he voted to prevent the government from requiring that corporations carry enough insurance to cover the cost of their accidents. And, why tax paying citizens in Nevada should be forced to pick up part of that tab?