Mistakes of West, Texas Repeated In West Virginia

Mike Elk

Paramedics in Charleston respond to a man found unresponsive on the banks of the Elk River, where a recent chemical spill contaminated the drinking water for more than 300,000 people. (Tom Hindman / Getty)

WASH­ING­TON, D.C. — This is an issue of pro­por­tion­al­i­ty,” says Dr. Ger­ald Poje, a for­mer mem­ber of the fed­er­al U.S. Chem­i­cal Safe­ty Board, as he watch­es me get pat­ted down by a secu­ri­ty guard on my way into a ses­sion of Pres­i­dent Obama’s chem­i­cal safe­ty task force on Tuesday.

How are we pro­por­tion­ing our larg­er social resources for secu­ri­ty and safe­ty?” asks Poje while I put back on my belt. We come into a gov­ern­ment build­ing just for a pub­lic hear­ing, and we have half a dozen peo­ple at the front gate doing check­ing. Then you look at what’s miss­ing in our high-haz­ard chem­i­cal infrastructure.”

Poje is refer­ring to the fail­ures of reg­u­la­tors to take suf­fi­cient steps to pre­vent the West Vir­ginia chem­i­cal spill, which cut off the drink­ing water sup­ply for more than 300,000 peo­ple for the bet­ter part of the past week.

Clos­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion between gov­ern­ment agen­cies could have pre­vent­ed the chem­i­cal spill from infect­ing the water sup­ply, Poje says. Com­ply­ing with a 1986 fed­er­al law, Free­dom Indus­tries filed a form in Feb­ru­ary 2013 let­ting local and state offi­cials know that the com­pa­ny was stor­ing a poten­tial­ly harm­ful chem­i­cal, 4‑methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), at a ware­house facil­i­ty on the Elk Riv­er. But reg­u­la­tors did not use the infor­ma­tion to devel­op a response plan in the event of a chem­i­cal spill.

Such a plan would typ­i­cal­ly include work­ing with the local water util­i­ty to pre­vent or mit­i­gate any poten­tial water con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. Instead, West Vir­ginia Amer­i­can Water Pres­i­dent Pres­i­dent Jeff McIn­trye, whose water treat­ment plant is locat­ed 1.5 miles down­stream from Free­dom Indus­tries’ chem­i­cal stor­age facil­i­ty, seemed at a loss when the spill occurred. He told the Charleston Gazette on Fri­day that his com­pa­ny did­n’t know much about the chem­i­cal’s pos­si­ble dan­gers, was­n’t aware of an effec­tive treat­ment process, and was­n’t even sure exact­ly how much 4‑methylcyclohexane methanol is too much.”

Iron­i­cal­ly, the fed­er­al Chem­i­cal Safe­ty Board (CSB) fore­saw just such a reg­u­la­to­ry break­down in the Kanawha Val­ley region of West Vir­ginia where the spill occurred (which is nick­named Chem­i­cal Val­ley” for its many chem­i­cal plants). Prompt­ed by an August 2008 explo­sion and fire that killed two work­ers at the Bay­er Crop­Science plant in Insti­tute, W. Va., the CSB made spe­cif­ic rec­om­men­da­tions in 2011 about how var­i­ous state and local reg­u­la­tors could bet­ter coor­di­nate to pro­tect res­i­dents. The CSB urged reg­u­la­tors in Kanawha Val­ley to adopt a plan called Haz­ardous Chem­i­cal Release Pre­ven­tion Pro­gram,” mod­eled on a plan in Con­tra Cos­ta, Calif.

How­ev­er, the state opt­ed not to fol­low the CSB’s rec­om­men­da­tions. Accord­ing to the Charleston Gazette, In June 2011, then-[West Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Health and Human Resources] Sec­re­tary Michael Lewis told the CSB that his agency and the state Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion had decid­ed not to move for­ward with the CSB recommendation.”

The com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems ring eeri­ly sim­i­lar to those lead­ing up to the West, Texas fer­til­iz­er plant explo­sion that caused 15 deaths last April. While at least two state agen­ciesthe Depart­ment of State Health Ser­vices and the Texas Com­mis­sion on Envi­ron­men­tal Qual­i­ty (TCEQ) — knew that the plant was stor­ing 1,350 times the legal amount of ammo­ni­um nitrate, nei­ther of them informed the two fed­er­al agen­cies tasked with reg­u­lat­ing the plant for threats of explo­sion: the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty (DHS) and Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA). Fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions would have required the plant to install safe­guards like fire­walls, which could have pre­vent­ed the blaze that ignit­ed the explo­sion from spreading.

For work­place safe­ty advo­cates, the West Vir­ginia chem­i­cal spill seems like déjà vu all over again.

Nobody likes to hear, I told you so,’ but in the case of last week’s chem­i­cal leak in West Vir­ginia — respon­si­ble for hun­dreds of thou­sands of res­i­dents being left for days with­out access to clean water — it is impos­si­ble not to point fin­gers,” Tom O’Connor, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the non­prof­it Nation­al Coun­cil for Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health, wrote in an email to Work­ing In These Times as news of the chem­i­cal spill unfolded.

Nor are West Vir­ginia and West, Texas, iso­lat­ed exam­ples, accord­ing to the work­place safe­ty advo­cates who spoke at the Improv­ing Chem­i­cal Facil­i­ty Safe­ty and Secu­ri­ty pub­lic hear­ing on Tues­day, host­ed by the fed­er­al Chem­i­cal Facil­i­ty Safe­ty and Secu­ri­ty Work­ing Group. In the wake of the West dis­as­ter, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma issued an exec­u­tive order last year to form the work­ing group to explore how bet­ter coor­di­na­tion between reg­u­la­tors could min­i­mize the risks of chem­i­cal plants. At the ses­sion, many advo­cates empha­sized that such prob­lems of coor­di­na­tion are easy to fix and could save lives, yet don’t occur.

In 2009, House Democ­rats even passed a bill that would give fed­er­al reg­u­la­tors, pri­mar­i­ly DHS and the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, more pow­er to effec­tive­ly mon­i­tor poten­tial­ly haz­ardous chem­i­cal facil­i­ties. But the leg­is­la­tion, which would also have forced com­pa­nies to imple­ment inher­ent­ly safer tech­nolo­gies,” died in the Sen­ate with­out a vote.

Again and again, work­place safe­ty advo­cates inter­viewed by Work­ing In These Times on Tues­day cit­ed a sin­gle cause of why such efforts die on the vine: media amne­sia. Once a dis­as­ter is over, reporters turn their atten­tion away from such unsexy top­ics as chem­i­cal plant safe­ty, and indus­tries lob­by for reg­u­la­to­ry changes to be killed in the dark.

This kind of an issue dies behind closed doors,” says Green­peace Leg­isla­tive Direc­tor Rick Hind, a 30-year vet­er­an of reg­u­la­to­ry bat­tles in DC. When you talk to peo­ple in these agen­cies, they start repeat­ing things the indus­try is say­ing. [They] need to be inspired to have the courage to embrace these poli­cies that the pub­lic will support.”

Many advo­cates cit­ed the sta­tis­tic that Amer­i­cans are about 270 times more like­ly to die in a work­place acci­dent than an act of ter­ror­ism, accord­ing to 2011 sta­tis­tics. They not­ed that the sim­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tion fix­es that could save work­ers’ lives and pre­vent leaks get nowhere near the cov­er­age that ter­ror­ism does. That is, unless the two issues dove­tail: The World Trade Cen­ter attacks raised spec­u­la­tion that with­out prop­er stor­age and safe­ty mea­sures, chem­i­cal plants could be easy tar­gets of future terrorism.

After 911, almost every major media [out­let] cov­ered this prob­lem and this threat and the solu­tion,” Greenpeace’s Hind says. That cov­er­age helped to build sup­port behind the chem­i­cal safe­ty bill that fiz­zled in the Sen­ate in 2009. Now, says Hind, I think since the time when the House bill passed in 09, there has bare­ly been a sto­ry about it.”

With the prospect of a sim­ple reg­u­la­to­ry fix on the table, Hind says that unless the media pays atten­tion, life-sav­ing reforms are unlike­ly to occur.

Hind feels that Oba­ma has set up the lis­ten­ing ses­sions, which will go on across the coun­try this spring, in order to attract attract media atten­tion and build pub­lic sup­port for reg­u­la­tions that could pos­si­bly be opposed by some in indus­try. The ses­sions in DC were held less than a week after the West Vir­ginia chem­i­cal spill and fea­tured a half dozen top reg­u­la­tors from dif­fer­ent agen­cies, includ­ing OSHA and the EPA, as well as many key indus­try lob­by­ists, work­place safe­ty advo­cates, small busi­ness own­ers and fam­i­lies of work­place acci­dent vic­tims — yet failed to attract much media atten­tion. Accord­ing to OSHA spokesper­son Lau­ren North, In These Times was the only pub­li­ca­tion to send a reporter to the pub­lic com­ment hearing.

The media dots every i’ and cross­es every t’ when it comes to the Pen­ta­gon bud­get, for exam­ple, but they are either AWOL or the lack the resources to do it here,” says Hind.

Poje also argues the media could do more to exam­ine issues per­ti­nent to pub­lic wel­fare. This is very low-hang­ing fruit of rais­ing the lev­el of pub­lic safe­ty and scruti­ny,” he says. I think the media could be ask­ing the hard questions.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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