Following The Money On The WV Chemical Spill

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Remember That Big Chemical Spill In West Virginia? Somebody Followed the Money

This post was made possible by a much longer investigative report by Evan Osnos for the New Yorker — read the full article here.

On the morning of Thursday, January 9th, 2014, an ominous smell of synthetic licorice rose off the Elk River to saturate the city of Charleston, West Virginia. Within hours, agents from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had discovered a leak at a chemical storage facility owned by Freedom Industries. Thousands of gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), a chemical used to wash clay and rock from coal, were flowing into the river.

They knew that the site posed an immediate problem: it was a mile upriver from the largest water-treatment plant in West Virginia. The plant served sixteen percent of the state’s population, some three hundred thousand people — a figure that had risen in the past decade, because coal mining has reduced the availability and quality of other water sources, prompting West Virginians to board up their wells and tap into the public system.”

Before long, President Obama had declared a federal emergency and FEMA as well as the National Guard were sent in to pass out bottled water. The Governor announced that all tap water was unsafe for “drinking, cooking, washing, or bathing.” The people of West Virginia went on to suffer for weeks from rashes, nausea, vomiting, and wheezing.

10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked from Freedom Industry’s storage facilities

I imagine that most of us followed this story through the news as it unfolded. The incident was terrible, but its consequences appeared largely isolated to the small state of West Virginia. As we are apt to do, we began to forget and the saga of the Freedom Industries spill soon faded out of the national discourse.

After reading Evan Osnos’s incredible investigative report into the circumstances surrounding the spill, it is essential that we revisit the events in Charleston of last January. West Virginia may be the indicator of where our nation is headed — the ‘canary in the coal mine’ if you will.

West Virginia has had 5 major industrial accidents in the past 8 years. In fact, citizen groups have even begun to seek out of state intervention to clean up the environmental threats:

In 2009, four environmental organizations petitioned the federal government to take over enforcement of parts of the Clean Water Act in West Virginia; they described the state’s regulatory system as approaching a ‘nearly complete breakdown.’”

Protestors at the West Virginia State Capitol

Consider the story of Pam Nixon. She recently retired after 15 years as a senior department official with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and told reporters that her superiors forced her to minimize enforcement. According to Nixon, some of these orders came from as far up as former governor Joe Manchin. As she told reporters: “If there was a problem, work to make sure that the company can continue to operate. . . . He didn’t want us to come down heavy-handedly.” Nixon expressed concerns about lax enforcement to the head of the department, Randy Hoffman. Her complaints fell on deaf ears.

He said, ‘Remember how this administration feels about these industries.’”

Randy Hoffman had clued Nixon in to a deeply entrenched reality of West Virginian politics: vote with coal. Of course, the coal industry has long been a political powerhouse. But as coal’s role in the national economy has shrunk, big coal has consolidated and organized politically like never before. There is a noticeable pattern in the state: politicians that go big, go big with coal at their side.

Joe Manchin, a governor who has publicly pressured the federal Environmental Protection Agency to curb enforcement, ran for the US Senate in 2010. At his back was the American Chemistry Council, a leading industry group for big coal. The council spent over $225,000 on advertisements promoting Manchin. That’s big money anywhere, but in a small state like West Virginia, that’s the kind of spending that wins an election. And it did. Manchin won his Senate race and now sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which regulates — you guessed it — the coal industry. 

West Virginian politicians know: when you fight for coal, they fight for you. And big coal has a helluva lot more money to drop than the people living next to the processing plants.

With certain disasters, of course, public outcry is enough to force any politician into action. In response to the Freedom Industries spill, West Virginias current governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, announced that he would be proposing the “spill bill”. This bill was sold as toughening regulations on aboveground storage tanks like the ones responsible for the Freedom Industries leak.

President Obama declared a federal emergency after the chemical leak at Freedom Industries.

Ken Ward Jr., a writer for a local paper, investigated the passage of the bill. The documents that he found were terrifying.

“He received a hundred and fifty-eight pages of e-mails and documents. They revealed that the Governor’s office had arranged a closed-door meeting for what it called ‘the stakeholders,’ which included the Chamber of Commerce, the Oil and Gas Association, and the Coal Association. No citizens’ groups or environmental organizations were invited.”

Even in the midst of a massive disaster (at this time many West Virginians were still without clean drinking water) the Governor made the decision to listen exclusively to the voices of the industry. In this type of political system, the voice of the citizen is not important enough to be heard. Later, regulators were unable to explain some of the exemptions that had made their way into the “Spill Bill”. Why? They had been inserted directly on the recommendation of chemical lobbyist Rebecca Randolph.

In the end, it came out that Freedom Industries had failed to file mandatory leak-prevention plans for years. No action had been taken. The DEP had even received multiple complaints from neighbors of the plant referring to the same licorice smell that would later infect the entire city. No fines were ever levied. To top it all of:

Eight days after the spill, Freedom, facing dozens of lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy.”

The cleanup of Freedom Industries mess will presumably fall upon the backs of the taxpayers of West Virginia. The very same people who have suffered because of the negligence of the company and the negligence of the government that is in place to keep them safe.

In West Virginia, coal runs the game. Politicians know that because of their ability to pump money into elections, they have to listen to the industry or lose their seat; even if it means endangering the citizens they are sworn to protect. This isn’t, however, just a story of a small coal state.

Everything about the West Virginia story has echoes on the national level. In 2013, special interests spent over $3.21 billion lobbying Congress. Politicians know what runs their campaigns. The leaders of the national parties are often chosen for their ability to fundraise. In 2013, lawmakers even let Citibank lobbyists write parts of the bill that was intended to regulate their own industry.

In West Virginia, the campaign finance system has bred a reality where industries are allowed to write their own rules and when things go downhill, they let the citizens foot the bill (anybody remember those bailouts?) The Freedom Industries fiasco made it clear that West Virginia suffers from the same systemic disease as the federal government does. The only difference is that what happens every day in the halls of Congress rarely makes the news.

  • mwildfire

    This piece makes it sound like in West Virginia, the coal industry dictates and state politicians take dictation. As a citizen of WV, I want to make this clear: it’s absolutely true. The coal indsutry has run this state for over a century, and this has a lot to do with the high poverty rate, low educational attainment, etc. When King Coal walks into the room, WV politicians reflexively bend over and lift their skirts. One thing has changed: now Queen Frack’emall has strutted onto the scene, and she gets the same treatment. Example: the state found a handy way to deal with the drilling wastes, which coming from the Marcellus are radioactive–just make it legal to dump them in ordinary landfills. If you don’t test them, it can’t violate regulations. Just like they dealt with the problem of overweight coal trucks some years back by making it legal for coal trucks, and only coal trucks, to carry 50% more weight than the normal 80,000 pounds.