By Tim Rowland
We’re taught the virtue of allowing cooler heads to prevail, but at times it might be wished that anger were preservable. That it could be canned, dried or frozen to be reconstituted when needed. Perhaps then, the passion we feel with each passing environmental disaster could be recreated when it came time for Congress to write new laws designed to prevent similar disasters.
Eighteen months have passed since an aging industrial tank on the banks of the Elk River owned by a company called Freedom Enterprises sprang a leak, sending 7,500 gallons of an unpronounceable coal-cleaning chemical into the homes of 300,000 residents of West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley.
Yet Congress is just now getting around to passing a law that would test some of the tens of thousands of the nation’s uncharted chemicals for safety — key word being some. About 10 chemicals a year, to be exact. In other words, chemicals will continue to pour into our lives far faster than we are able to fully understand their effects on humans and the environment.
Many members of Congress are hailing the measure — which has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate — as an act of unfettered consumer and environmental protectionism; the chemical industry is basking in the moment as well, positioning itself as a willing champion of public health and comfortable in the knowledge that, because it helped draft the bill, the industry will remain safe from any financial inconvenience. And while some are protesting that this is a case where nothing would have been preferable to something, these days it’s best to accept any environmental victory that presents itself, no matter how small.
But if the passions that were flowing early in 2014 could be channeled today, the public might have demanded something far more meaningful.
At the time, there were many concerns about inspections, maintenance records and the lack of a sound corporate response. But perhaps more troubling was the chemical itself, a foaming agent known as crude 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol — MCHM for short.
With a name like 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol it was assumed the chemical, which smelled faintly of licorice, was toxic. But incredibly, as the days went by, no one could really say with any authority exactly what the chemical’s effect might be on people who came in contact with it. Nor was MCHM an outlier. Newsweek reported that the EPA has tested and published data on only 200 of the 83,000 chemicals in its inventory.
The operable law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, hasn’t been revised since it was passed in 1976. It’s so weak and outdated that even the carcinogen asbestos to this day escapes regulation. But at least asbestos’ effects are well known. That’s not true for most chemicals, which can range from harmless to a mild irritant to deadly.
So for 10 days, with no solid information to act on, residents and guests of the valley — including members of the state legislature — relied on water trucked into emergency distribution centers. Residents were aghast, as they felt neither Freedom Enterprises nor the government was leveling with them — the company because it wouldn’t, the government because it couldn’t.
The iconic video was of Freedom Enterprise executive Gary Southern chugging bottled water and complaining to news reporters that the whole affair had been quite a personal inconvenience to him. If that wasn’t enough, newspapers later reported that Freedom Enterprises had failed to report the spill to authorities and downstream water utilities.
Facing a landslide of lawsuits, Freedom Enterprises filed for bankruptcy protection — yet scarcely two months later, the Charleston Gazette reported that a new company “whose characteristics are strikingly similar Freedom Enterprises,” had registered for business with the West Virginia Secretary of State. The addresses and phone numbers were the same as Freedom Enterprises. It was, as happens all too often in these matters, business as usual.
In the realm of companies behaving badly, Freedom Enterprise was a tough act to follow. But as with all other perpetrators of environmental disasters, time is on the side of the companies and their supporting industries. As the months and years go by, indignation wanes; the public will have sharks, Isis and other calamities to occupy its attention.
So the next time — and rest assured there will be a next time — the best course of action might be to keep our emotions in check as the disaster unfolds, then unleash our anger when Congress uses the occasion to sweeten its relationship with moneyed industries at the people’s and environment’s expense.
Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author who writes from Western Maryland. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.