In January 2014, an estimated 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (or MCHM for short) spilled from a ruptured Freedom Industries storage tank into the Elk River near Charleston, W.V. Exposure to MCHM, which is used in coal processing, can cause skin damage, headaches, and difficulty breathing. For weeks, residents in all or parts of nine counties lacked access to potable water, forcing them to rely on bottled water for everything from drinking and cooking to bathing. The spill eventually led Freedom Industries to declare bankruptcy. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the catastrophe, it’s worth reflecting upon what we’ve learned and how we can prevent another disaster in the future.
It was welcome news this month to hear that the FBI is charging Gary Southern, CEO of Freedom Industries—the company responsible for the chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water of more than 300,000 people in West Virginia last year. Southern faces charges of bankruptcy fraud, wire fraud, and lying under oath, stemming from his efforts to distance himself from the company and protect his personal wealth.
The news gives us a chance to reflect on a harrowing story that has all but disappeared from the news cycle. In January 2014, an estimated 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (or MCHM for short) spilled from a ruptured Freedom Industries storage tank into the Elk River near Charleston, W.V. Exposure to MCHM, which is used in coal processing, can cause skin damage, headaches and difficulty breathing. For weeks, residents in all or parts of nine counties lacked access to potable water, forcing them to rely on bottled water for everything from drinking and cooking to bathing. The spill eventually led Freedom Industries to declare bankruptcy.
What can we learn from last year’s tragedy?
We have regulators for a reason
The investigation into Southern made one thing clear: in business, the greater good rarely trumps the bottom line. Southern allegedly mischaracterized his role with the company to protect his substantial assets, estimated at more than $7.7 million, including a $1.2 million home in Florida. Southern’s greed even went so far as to ask for compensation during Freedom’s bankruptcy proceedings.
But this isn’t just about one man’s actions: state inspectors found that Freedom Industries had invested little in spill containment, despite their knowledge of potential danger and the facility’s precarious location just a few miles upstream from downtown Charleston; the state capital. It’s a cold calculus many companies make.
Think back to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, when it was discovered that companies had taken shortcuts in construction and design to save money, even if it increased the risk of a catastrophic spill. Regulators exist to keep the excesses in check and ensure that when something’s good for business, but bad for people, profit doesn’t always win.
But… we can’t always trust them
West Virginia’s lax regulations of the coal industry received nearly as much blame for the spill as Freedom Industries itself. Residents had expressed concerns about the facility for years, and some told the Charleston Daily Mail that they’d seen questionable practices, including chemical runoff heading toward the Kanawha River. While the January spill may have been the largest disaster, the New York Times reported that it was actually the third chemical accident in five years in the area. Calls for move oversight after earlier accidents went unheeded, and it was discovered that the Freedom Industries tank that ruptured hadn’t been inspected since 1991.
The technical term for this is “regulatory capture,” wherein the entities regulators are supposed to police exert undue influence that weakens agency enforcement. Even as coal use has dropped nationwide, coal is still king in West Virginia—in many towns, mining is the only industry and shuttered mines leave residents without an income or an alternative. Though polls have shown “the future of coal” is an issue of declining importance for West Virginians (in August, just 16 percent said it was their top issue), that it’s even a choice in a poll is illustrative of the strength of the industry’s hold on the state. Though the spill prompted the state to pass a law tightening regulation on chemical storage, months later, the consensus was that government’s cozy relationship with the coal industry remained largely unchanged.
While the lack of substantive policy and political change certainly rankles, the chemical spill has brought some progress. Some companies are still cutting corners. Some regulators are still turning a blind eye, and some lawmakers are still too cowed to hold industry accountable. But one year ago, we didn’t know how bad it was and what the consequences could be.
The chemical spill shone a light on the coal industry’s undue power in West Virginia and the dirty relationships that allow it to put profits before people. More than 18,000 people signed one petition (of many that proliferated in the months following), demanding the legislature tighten regulations on industry. That action is a critical first step to educating the public and building a consensus that “business as usual” can’t continue.
Change comes slowly in democracy, and in a state where many worry that achieving safe working conditions and a clean environment requires sacrificing jobs, winning environmental fights can feel Sisyphean. But knowledge is liberating. Just a week after the spill, a poll showed that half of Americans supported stronger regulations to protect drinking water. The challenge for environmental activists now is to harness this anger at industry, and to show the powers that be that those who want safe water are just as potent a political force as the coal industry ever was.
Joe Baker is the Vice President, Editorial and Advocacy for Care2 and The Petition Site. He is responsible for recruitment campaigns for nonprofit partners, membership growth efforts, and all editorial content. Prior to Care2, Joe was the Executive Director of N-TEN. Joe has a Ph.D. in Communication Systems and a B.S. in Economics/Systems Science from UCLA. He serves on the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus, the Advisory Board of GiveForward.org and volunteers for the Sierra Club and Amnesty International.
Images via Shutterstock and Freedom Industries