January 22nd, 2014
Takeaways From The Elk River Spill
More than a week after the fact, thousands of West Virginians are still reeling from the effects of the toxic spill into the Elk River. Water supplies were cut off. Some were actually exposed to the contaminated water, resulting in nausea, vomiting and other symptoms requiring emergency treatment. More than that, there are still questions for the future. MCHM is a known carcinogen. Are those who were exposed to the contaminated water likely to develop cancer in the future? And what effect could exposure have on pregnant women and their unborn babies?
I lived in Charleston for over four years, and I still have friends who live in the Charleston area. This was more than a news story to me. My heart ached for all of those who were affected. Like others, I'm proud of the way the people living in Charleston and the surrounding areas stood tall during this crisis. Like others, I'm also proud of the way people throughout West Virginia rallied to help--sending drinking water, food and paper supplies, or volunteering their time. It makes me proud to be a West Virginian.
But I've also had a chance to think about the facts lying behind this tragedy. There are lessons to be learned, and things that can help us shape a better and safer future. I have three takeaways that I want to share.
My first takeaway is this: big companies don't police themselves. It's sad, but it's a reality in today's market place. In many cases, the sole driving force is turning a profit regardless of the consequences. Big companies just aren't interested in promoting safety. There was supposed to be a containment wall around Eastman Chemical's storage facility to prevent any leak of MCHM from spilling into the water supply. It was a simple, inexpensive protective measure. Did Eastman Chemical care? No! The containment wall had a hole in it, rendering it useless. If Eastman Chemical had inspected the wall, it would have discovered the hole and this terrible tragedy could have been prevented. Sadly, safety simply isn't a part of the modern corporate mindset.
Here's my second takeaway: government has to step up. It seems unbelievable to me that government inspections of this facility weren't required. Apparently, under current law, inspections are only mandatory for chemical production
facilities. But as we've seen for ourselves, chemical storage
facilities can be every bit as dangerous. Big companies won't inspect for themselves. That's a given. So it's up to the government to insure that inspections take place. Just as important, it's up to the government to insure that any safety violations are promptly and effectively remedied.
My third takeaway is this: big companies that fail to protect us should be held legally accountable. Eastman Chemical's tanks were filled with a toxic, cancer-producing chemical. The tanks were sitting next to a water source serving over 300,000 people. The duty of care was very high indeed. Because Eastman Chemical failed to take even the simplest steps to keep its facility safe, it should be required to pay for all of the injuries, damages and losses that it caused.
These same takeaways also apply to new industries coming into our state, including gas drilling. Everyone knows that gas drilling has been a big boom for the economy, but at what cost? Pollution. Dangerous air emissions. Contaminated water from fracking operations spilling into the water table. These are only a few of the health and environmental impacts that are facing West Virginians. Gas drillers aren't embracing safety and the Legislature has failed to act. Certainly, the MCHM spill in Charleston should be a wake-up call. It's time for the Legislature to develop meaningful regulations to protect West Virginians from these dangers. And, of course, whenever gas drillers fail to act responsibly and cause injury, property damage or other kinds of losses, they should be held accountable through our legal system for paying full and fair compensation to the victims.