The deplorable story of how 300,000 West Virginians lost their water

"People were saying they could smell [noxious chemicals] in the water ... and in the air," an expert explains

Published January 14, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

       (Steve Helber)
(Steve Helber)

Following a 7,500 gallon chemical spill that left 300,000 people without drinkable tap water for five days, West Virginia Gov. Earl Tomblin announced Monday that a nine-county tap water ban would begin to be lifted. The spill spurred a federal emergency declaration, 10 hospital admissions and new scrutiny on industry’s influence over state and federal policy.

To consider the fallout, Salon called up Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council and lecturer for George Washington University. Sass blasted Freedom Industries’ handling of the emergency, called West Virginia “a state that’s not interested in enforcing … state or federal regulations,” and warned that an initially promising bill in Congress could make the situation worse. A condensed version of our conversation follows.

How disturbed are you by what we’re seeing, and how significant a crisis is this?

There’s some particularly troubling aspects of this incident, and then it fits into a larger pattern that’s very dangerous …

One of the things that really disturbs me about this incident is that it was initially identified not by, you know, routine, regular monitoring by the facility itself, Freedom, for leaks and spills, but it was actually reported by the community. Which means that the levels were so high in the air that they were noxious. They were disturbing the community.

And that’s really high air pollution. People were saying they could smell it in the water, and they could smell it in the air. So that’s a real problem … It means the company is not monitoring themselves properly.

And then the second thing was the fact that the company did not alert the community, or the downstream water intake, when they found out. Or let them know what chemical it was.

So here you’ve got all these people being exposed to chemicals at levels that’s actually bothering them, noxious levels, and they’re not being told what they’re exposed to. That’s a problem also for providing medical care for first responders.

The fact that this was first reported by the community – does that suggest that there are other violations that take place, that legally should be reported by companies and aren’t? That we just don’t find out about?

Yeah, that happens a lot. Yes. There’s leaks and spills all the time, unfortunately, and most of them we don’t know about, in lots of different industries, especially involving chemicals … We know that about fracking, about oil and gas fracking: that these things happen much more often than we’d like. On a daily basis.

Was this a predictable disaster in West Virginia?

I don’t know enough about how the company operates to say it was predictable. But I will say that their response was so bad that I’m guessing that their routine maintenance and monitoring was just as bad. Their response was so poor that it indicates that they had very poor health and safety standard operating procedures.

The press conference that a Freedom Industries official held Friday, in which he said, “We are very, very sorry for disruption of everyone’s daily life” – is that a satisfactory comment?

I think it’s much too little, and it’s far too late …

They should have been telling the community, not the community telling them that there’s a problem. They should’ve been on top of this quickly. They should’ve been alerting the water intake. And they should have been telling people what the chemical was, so that individuals could look it up, as well as first responders know how to respond to it.

And they didn’t do any of that.

Now what they did do is shut down the system right away, and the water treatment shut down its system very quickly when they knew. But even then there seems to have been poor communication between Freedom and the water treatment camp, the drinking water plant.

So those are really big problems … Those represent a failure of general health and safety procedures. Your standard operating procedures are really poor in that place.

So how do you apportion the blame here between the company, the state government and the federal government in terms of this being allowed to happen?

I’m not sure that I can divvy it up … Our own lawyers are still looking into where all of the authorities lay on this.

I will say a couple of things about this.  The first thing is that West Virginia has a poor history in this area ... the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster was a very serious example of what happens when you have federal oversight that is ignored, you have OSHA or EPA-type of citations that are ignored routinely, and you have a state that’s friendly to an industry that is actually dangerous … That killed 29 out of 30 miners that were involved in the explosion, and the company management was investigated for criminal liability.

So I mean, there’s a history here to what happens when you’re a state that’s not interested in enforcing either whatever the state or federal regulations are … [And] paying a lot of deference to these industries.

And I think this represents that larger problem. But, you know, I could never put it in a category of like the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, where so many people died.

West Virginia’s Democratic senator campaigned for office by shooting the cap-and-trade bill with a gun in an ad. Are politicians right to perceive a tension between environmental protection and West Virginia job growth?

Not only is environmental and worker protection good business, but it’s actually the only way to do good business … Nobody knows what the cost is to Freedom Industries for this, but I know it would have been cheaper to not have the leak in the first place …

You could always say that. It’s always cheaper to not blow things up, and to not kill people, and to not have these kinds of P.R. as well as cleanup disasters. It’s always cheaper to not have the problem. The only way companies get away with not having the problem anyway is by not doing the cleanup …

They can shut off their systems, and let that polluted water go downstream and dilute out. And that’s what they’re going to have to do, unfortunately, and they’re not going to be taking responsibility for any fish kills, or any sort of aquatic organism impacts that happen along the way. But they will have to take a look at the sediments in that area, and they will have to consider whether a sediment cleanup is necessary. If it is, that would be very expensive.

And I hope they do that properly. I hope they look at that properly, because that would be a long-term risk to people, if those chemicals were stuck in that sediment upstream of a water intake …

The cheapest thing of all is either not to use toxic or hazardous chemicals -- because there’s all sorts of added costs to managing production, storage and waste from those toxic chemicals – so the cheapest thing is to not use them at all when you don’t have to. And the second cheapest thing is to use chemicals that are as least toxic as possible.

What should the chemicals you’re describing be replaced with?

I’m not actually sure in this case … It’s very hard to weigh the hazardous toxicity of this particular chemical, because there’s very little information on it. Although I have to say, from its structure, it is likely to be able to dilute out. It is highly water-soluble, and it is likely that it will dilute out eventually.

So how should Freedom Industries change its business?

I think if Freedom Industries ever wants to win back the trust of its community, of the population around it, I mean it’s going to have to be much more transparent about what its operations are. And it’s going to have to be much more rigorous about how it’s … preventing … monitoring, and then addressing.

And this is standard operating procedures for lots of companies. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to do it too.

Are you convinced that there are chemicals they are using that they should stop using?

I don’t know enough about their operations to say that … Nobody really knows enough about their operations right now to say that.

But as a larger picture, I think it’s something that companies should take a look at to reduce their costs. Moving away from hazardous chemicals will reduce their costs.

What are the larger public policy lessons here?

For me, I think the most important one is the siting something upstream of a drinking water intake – I mean, I just cannot understand the justification of that …

You need to have strong federal and state regulations that provide some sort of a backstop, to say: Look, you can’t operate any less safe than this. This is your backstop line. You’ve got to have these operations in place. You know, don’t store large amounts of these chemicals on-site. Store them in this way. Monitor to prevent, to monitor, and to address problems this way.

There’s got to be some kind of operating procedures that other companies have. And then, of course, if there’s a problem, alerting the community, alerting first responders, and alerting downstream businesses that would be affected immediately. And none of that was done.

The amount of information that’s available about the operations of this company and about the chemicals involved and the risks involved – is there a lesson in that itself?

Yeah, there is for me … When this first happened, I immediately went to my normal sites to look up this chemical, and there wasn’t much there … Does it break down into Benzyne? Benzyne is a carcinogen; is it going to produce carcinogens in the water or the air? You know, really important questions, it was difficult for me to find the answers to. I ended up calling industry chemists, friends of mine I know that are industrial chemists, to ask them what they thought. And this, it just shouldn’t be that hard to find.

So we have very little testing. There’s no specific health and safety testing on this chemical. It’s only being compared to other chemicals by its structure -- chemists just sort of using their best educated guesses. So I think that’s a real problem.

And what would be the solution there?

Well, companies don’t have to test. They can put chemicals into commerce without safety-testing them. And so I think that’s the issue. And the toxins reform that Sen. Lautenberg had proposed in the Safe Chemical Act [before dying in 2013] would have required testing up-front by these companies, to be submitted to the government and federal agencies.

And health and safety information should always be public. It should never be confidential. In particular, to first responders. I mean, that’s a big problem with the toxin reform bill that’s circulating on the hill right now … physicians and medical experts can’t release that information to their patients [under proposed language]. So they put a gag order on physicians and medical experts. But it’s just outrageous that we have these kinds of explosions, spills, leaks affecting our air and water and soil -- and yet, you know, companies are claiming it’s confidential.

It’s very problematic. It was drafted by [Senator David] Vitter’s office and was made problematic -- and it puts a gag order on physicians so that they can’t share information with their patients about what kinds of chemicals they might be treating for.

The original Lautenberg [version] didn’t have any gag orders. Health and safety information would have had to have been made public.

By Josh Eidelson

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