I’ve been watching with horror as the story unfolds of a chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia. As of its discovery on January 9th, some 300,000 people in nine counties are without potable running water, because the leak occurred just above an intake for the major water system serving the region. Affected residents cannot drink, bathe in, or wash their dishes or clothes with their water. Schools, businesses and many government offices remain closed; FEMA and the National Guard are trucking in massive quantities of water. Hundreds of people have reported symptoms of exposure such as rashes and nausea, and several have been hospitalized. The leaked compound is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used in coal processing.
There are a couple of odd things about the reporting on this story. And I’m not just talking about the under-reporting of the chemical storage company’s ties to those infamous shitweasels the Koch brothers [h/t SJ], which is hardly unprecedented.
One strange thing is the conflicting narratives about how the leak was initially discovered. The chemical storage facility is owned by a company called Freedom Industries, whose co-founder and president, Gary Southern, issued a brief statement at a news conference on January 10, but did not take questions. From one account by a reporter for The West Virginia Gazette:
At the news conference, Freedom Industries President Gary Southern gave few details about the company, made several statements seemingly in conflict with what government officials have said, and was whisked away by a public relations handler with reporters still shouting questions.
Southern said that on the morning of January 9 at around 10:30 a.m., two of his employees noticed material leaking from a storage tank into a dike, whereupon the company immediately contacted authorities and began the cleanup process.
Not so, says the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Mike Dorsey, chief of the DEP’s homeland security and emergency response division, said the agency began receiving calls at 8:15 a.m. from area residents concerned about a “sweet smell” in the air, whereupon officials followed their noses to Freedom Industries and discovered the leak at 11:10 a.m.:
The DEP and Kanawha County emergency officials traced the odors to Freedom Industries, which had not self-reported any sort of leak or accident, officials said.
In an air-quality enforcement order, the DEP said air-quality officials who arrived at the site at 11:10 a.m. “discovered that no spill containment measures had been initiated and that an accumulating [4-methylcyclohexane methanol] leak pool was seeping thru a dike wall adjacent to the Elk River and a downstream oil sheen was observed.”
A statement issued on January 10 by PR agency Charles Ryan Associates on behalf of Freedom Industries said:
Since the discovery of the leak, safety for residents in Kanawha and surrounding counties has been Freedom Industries’ first priority.
We have been working with local and federal regulatory, safety and environmental entities, including the DEP, Coast Guard, Army Corp of Engineers and Homeland Security, and are following all necessary steps to fix the issue. Our team has been working around the clock since the discovery to contain the leak to prevent further contamination. At this point, Freedom Industries is still working to determine the amount of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in processing coal, that has been released, as the first priority was safety, containment and cleanup.
OF COURSE IT WAS. Coincidentally, Charles Ryan Associates counts among its clients American Petroleum Institute (API), a group of powerful right-wing lobbyists for America’s Owners/Dirty Energy Contingent singularly dedicated to making sure we all die as soon as possible from the repercussions of global warming and/or from drinking the fracking chemicals in our groundwater.
Very little is known about our new BFF Gary Southern, except that he is apparently doing quite well for himself. His company’s filings list one of his residences in the swanky gated community of Hideaway Beach on Marco Island, Florida:
It’s very nice. According to Zillow, it’s a “grand & gracious” 3,749 sq. ft. 4-bedroom home, featuring a 4 level elevator, 3 wet bars, a mini kitchen off the 2nd bedroom suite, lake views, 6 terraces, a pool—and the golf course is conveniently located right across the street. It went for $1.2 million and change in 2012. It’s kind of a gutsy location, though, since it will be completely under water when the sea level rises due to Gary Southern and his friends really, really enjoying being spectacularly rich from dirty energy.
Marco Island, FL: projected topography with 7m sea level rise.
Maybe he can extend the house and the elevator up a few more stories? He also appears to be eligible for economic damages as a result of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, so perhaps he can put that money toward construction. Lard knows things could get tight for a while, what with all the lawsuits.
Anyway, it’s no secret that conservatives want to completely dismantle the EPA, and failing that, prevent the agency from regulating greenhouse gases, coal ash, water pollution and pesticides. All these senseless environmental regulations interfere with the fabulous lifestyles of America’s Owners, and, well, what the hell kind of Freedom™ is that? What are you some kind of communist?
Another strange aspect to all of this is the under-reported significance of the fact that very little is known about the effects on humans of exposure to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.
Science writer Deborah Blum at Wired spoke to a government toxicologist who told her “Interestingly, and unusually, there is very little information on the compound spilled in West Virginia.” “This is the first I’ve heard of this chemical,” the director of the West Virginia Water Institute told Salon. Blum noted that newspapers and other publications were linking to the National Library of Medicine’s ToxNet database, but it led to the compound methylcyclohexanol—which is similar, but not the same thing. She took to Twitter, where she garnered the assistance of other chemists and toxicologists, but ultimately came up with nothing on point.
Finally, a source sent her a copy of a 2011 Material Safety Data Sheet:
“Caution,” it said. “Product can cause skin and eye irritation. Vapors, especially upon heating, can cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract.” The safety data sheet was strong on not inhaling the compound – which could cause headaches, breathing difficulty and nausea – and on wearing protective gear in case of an accident.
But here was what caught my attention:
Exposure guidelines: None established for products or components
Ecological information: There is no data available for the product
And that I think is the most important message in this story. That we don’t really know. That we haven’t done our homework well on enough of these industrial compounds because we haven’t been willing to invest in the research or provide enough financial support to the agencies who could do the work. Our Toxic Substances Control Act is more than 35 years old and we (by which I mean Congress) haven’t conjured up the backbone to update and strengthen it as of this date.
Gosh, I wonder why that would be? Ima ask Gary Southern next time I run into him at the Hideaway Beach Club.
I’ll leave you with an interesting little thought experiment: What might have happened if the leaked chemical turned out to be odorless, and more toxic?
One more thing: FUCK YOU, CONSERVATIVES.