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Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Deweese loads bottled water on Jan.11, 2014, as part of relief efforts for 300,000 residents of eight West Virginia counties whose drinking water was poisoned by a chemical spill. (Staff Sgt. De-Juan Haley/Flickr /Creative Commons)

Corporate America Poisons West Virginia

How right-wing deregulation led to toxic water for 300,000 people.

BY Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

Maya Nye, president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, explained why the legislature prostrates itself to industry at the expense of public health: 'We are so desperate for jobs in West Virginia, we don’t want to do anything that pushes industry out.'

In West Virginia after a cavalier chemical company poisoned the drinking water of 300,000 people, the corporate-hugging, right-wing extremist group Americans for the Prosperous congratulated itself for doling out bottled water one day.

“What better way to help people than to give them water?” said Wendy McCuskey, a member of Americans for the Prosperous (aka Americans for Prosperity).

Well, maybe one better way would be regulating corporations to prevent them from poisoning water in the first place. But Americans for the Prosperous, and the group’s entitled billionaire sponsors, reject regulation. Instead, they believe the wealthy are entitled to operate recklessly and crash Wall Street now and again, operate haphazardly and poison a river or two, sicken and inconvenience non-rich Americans and force local taxpayers to cover the costs of emergency response and cleanup. That’s the way the entitled rich believe it should be. That is the Americans for the Prosperous way.

The company that poisoned the Elk River had escaped government inspection of its aging chemical storage tanks in a regulation-lax state for nearly a quarter century, since the time when the tanks, owned by a different firm, held gasoline. The company is called Freedom Industries—as in free from regulation, free to ooze 7,500 gallons of licorice-smelling, coal processing 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into a West Virginia drinking water supply; free to neglect mentioning the contamination until confronted by state officials; free to allow deterioration of the dike intended to prevent such a spill from splashing into the river; free to file for bankruptcy a week after polluting the river, thus shifting costs onto creditors and those injured. In other words, entitled to make money in any way it pleased and expect taxpayers to suffer the consequences.

In the thrall of anti-regulation zealots like Americans for the Prosperous, West Virginia politicians neglected to protect citizens, refused to attempt to prevent corporations from sickening and even killing West Virginians.

Federal officials warned West Virginia long before the Freedom Industries incident. In fact, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board cautioned West Virginia twice in the past five years, both times after chemical plant workers died. The board urged the state to regulate chemical facilities, a role Congress denied the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA may inspect only above-ground oil tanks. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) could review for worker safety. But an inadequate budget means OSHA can examine each workplace only once every 100 years.

In 2008, an explosion at Bayer CropScience, in Institute, W.Va. killed two workers and sickened six volunteer firefighters. The plant made the same chemical that killed 10,000 and injured 500,000 in Bhopal, India in 1984 after a Union Carbide pesticide plant released it. In 2010, three serious errors occurred within 33 hours at a DuPont chemical manufacturing plant in Belle, W.Va., including release of a gas used as a chemical weapon in World War I. That killed one worker.

After investigating the Bayer CropScience explosion, the Chemical Safety Board recommended that the West Virginia legislature adopt a regulation plan prepared by People Concerned About Chemical Safety, a state group established after the blast.

People Concerned About Chemical Safety first offered the plan in 2009, and the legislature did nothing. The legislature did nothing again a year later when the Chemical Safety Board issued its Bayer CropScience report. And it did nothing once more in response to the death at DuPont.

Maya Nye, president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, explained to a New York Times reporter why the legislature prostrates itself to industry at the expense of public health: “We are so desperate for jobs in West Virginia, we don’t want to do anything that pushes industry out.”

That’s a fear exploited by groups like Americans for the Prosperous. They promote the idea that if industry can’t operate recklessly, then it will move someplace where it can. Maybe Phopal, India, for example.

This is job creation mythology. It goes like this: industry spawns jobs, so it’s entitled to do whatever it wants. This is a fabrication that Americans for the Prosperous fosters. It’s the opposite of the philosophy that the sweat of workers creates wealth, so workers are entitled to safety on the job, safety for their families in their communities and a reasonable share of the fruits produced by their labor.

While Americans for the Prosperous and its wealthy patrons believe corporations should operate without public oversight, they also think they’re entitled to gorge themselves at the taxpayer-funded trough.

Freedom Industries is the perfect example. In 2009, a silt build up on the Elk River threatened to close Freedom’s main transportation route for the chemicals at its Etowah Terminal, the one that spewed poison earlier this month. Taxpayers came to the rescue with $400,000 from President Obama’s stimulus package paying for dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Americans for the Prosperous opposed the stimulus, but its corporate backers felt entitled to grab all the tax dollars they could from that pot.

Nothing says entitlement of the wealthy better than the two guys listed on the incorporation papers for Freedom Industries. They are Gary Southern and Carl Lemley Kennedy II.

In 1987, Kennedy pleaded guilty to selling cocaine. In West Virginia, apparently, a convicted cocaine pusher is free to move on to peddling deadly industrial chemicals. Kennedy and Southern incorporated Freedom in 1992.

In 2006, Kennedy pleaded guilty to tax evasion and failure to pay to the government $1 million in taxes he’d withheld from Freedom workers’ paychecks. Apparently, he felt he was entitled to pocket that money.

Meanwhile, at a press conference following the river contamination, Southern said he was sorry for the “unfortunate” incident that disrupted “everybody’s daily life.” Those “disruptions” included more than 150 people sickened and 10 hospitalized. They include people living in fear because they drank the water or bathed their children in it before the warning. They include West Virginians enduring a week without tap water and businesses and schools shut down.

But, hey, Southern felt he was entitled to rest up after the little dust up. He told reporters, “It has been an extremely long day. I’m having trouble talking at the moment. I would appreciate it if we could wrap this thing up.”

Here’s something else Americans for the Prosperous feels that Southern and every other fat cat corporate executive is entitled to: life without worry that the government will respond to such a disaster by instituting regulations to prevent it from happening again.

GOP Speaker of the House John Boehner immediately offered executives that assurance, promising no new federal regulations and blaming the disaster not on recklessness by a chemical corporation but on the very federal agencies that Boehner had ensured are underfunded and understaffed.

Boehner’s message to West Virginians: “Let them drink bottled water.”

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco's nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

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