West Virginia Governor Starting To Feel Like Maybe Rivers Shouldn't Be Filled With Poison

As residents of West Virginia perfect their ability to glance suspiciously at the water flowing from their taps, state lawmakers have officially whipped themselves into a lather of "Somebody do something!" And, as Reuters' Ian Simpson reports, that "something" may end up being legislation geared toward "tightening" the rules that have heretofore been noteworthy in their slackness.

The first foray into better regulation is being proposed by West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D), who said in a joint statement with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) Monday, "The discharge of chemicals or other contaminants into our water supply is unacceptable and will not be tolerated." This is a break with the status quo, in which a lax regulatory regime was pretty much deemed to be tolerable.

Why not gaze upon Tomblin's proposals, per Reuters, and steel yourself against the question you will inevitably have: "Wait, you mean that West Virginia regulators weren't doing this stuff already?"

Tomblin said the legislation would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to implement an above-ground tank regulation program that would require operators to report tanks' location, construction and maintenance.

It also requires annual inspections and certifications and allows the head of the environmental agency to order a plant to take corrective action when storing potentially harmful material. Plants also would have to submit spill prevention plans for each tank.

That's right. Among the other no-brainer regulations that Tomblin would finally install for the purpose of public safety, this legislation would require businesses like Freedom Industries -- the company that owns the recently liberated contaminants -- to tell regulators where their tanks of deadly poisons are actually located. It's a start, I guess!

Meanwhile, The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach examines another thorny issue that's emerged in the aftermath of the Elk River chemical spill -- the fact that so little was known about the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that public safety officials "wound up backtracking on whether it was safe for everyone to start drinking water again after the do-not-use order was lifted in West Virginia last week."

Achenbach reports that a "15-page material safety data sheet for the chemical" was jam-packed with 152 instances of the phrase "no data available." Maranda Demuth, a spokeswoman for the chemical's manufacturer, Eastman Chemical, shows up in Achenbach's report "play[ing] down the significance" of these gaps, "noting that nine of the 152 such entries refer to water, which is harmless."

Those nine entries about water are doing a lot of heavy lifting for the other 143, it seems. Nevertheless, at this point you might ask yourself, "How thorough a report is it if you are putting 'no data available' in the nine entries about water? Is there no data available, really, regarding water?" Indeed, no less an authority than Eastman Chemical spokeswoman Maranda Demuth says that "water" is "harmless." That is a data point that we know about water.

How are chemicals like 4-methylcyclohexane methanol slipping through the cracks? Well, it might surprise you to learn that it "has been 38 years since Congress passed a major piece of legislation regulating toxic chemicals." Achenbach notes that in 2013, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) had proposed an "industry-friendly" piece of legislation called the "Chemical Safety Improvement Act."

If you are guessing that this legislation will fail to live up to the lofty standards suggested by its name, well, congratulations. The proposed bill would regulate toxic chemicals on a two-tiered system, allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to "conduct tests on only the high-priority chemicals." As you might expect, the chemical that leached into West Virginia waterways would be placed on the lower tier.

All of which suggests that the energy lobby's hold on Congress is fairly strong, and that we're not any closer to addressing the problem of underfunded, understaffed and undermined environmental regulators. Nevertheless, a spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee named Charlotte Baker offers Achenbach some choice spin, saying, “Of the thousands of chemicals out there, we need to focus on the ones that present the most risk.”

But it was 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that shut down the water supply for 300,000 people. That sure seems like a lot of risk!

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West Virginia Chemical Spill