Months After Chemical Spill in West Virginia, Chemical Industry Pours Money Into Midterm Elections

Emergency crew try to position booms to contain the chemical leak in the Elk River on Satur
CHARLESTON, WV JANUARY 11, 2014: Emergency crew try to position booms to contain the chemical leak in the Elk River on Saturday, January 11, 2014 at the West Virginia American Water Company in Charleston, West Virginia. Ty Wright for the Washington Post

Nine months after a massive chemical spill in my home state of West Virginia contaminated the water supply for 300,000 residents, a new report out this week shows that the American Chemistry Council (ACC) has spent nearly $2 million so far in the 2014 election cycle running thousands of ads in congressional races. According to the report, published by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the trade association has also tripled its lobbying spending in recent years as it pushes for legislation that would make it harder for states to regulate chemicals.

The CREW report notes:

"The ACC's bipartisan political contributions and advertisements, together with its skyrocketing lobbying spending, have won the organization plenty of friends in Congress and in the states, making it unlikely any form of chemical regulation will pass without the trade association's approval."

While less than surprising, this is a deeply problematic state of affairs not only for the Americans who have been and will be affected by chemical spills, but for our democratic process in general. Legislators voting on measures that affect the health and safety of their constituents should be weighing the pros and cons of these potential policy changes without the threat of millions of dollars of ads being directed their way. They should have the concerns of their community members front and center, rather than the concerns of a trade association representing the interests of its corporate members.

But this is the legacy of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which paved the way for unlimited political spending by outside groups, and other decisions like it. When corporations and industry trade associations have free reign to spend unlimited sums influencing elections, the most damaging effect isn't found in the unending TV ads, or radio ads, or direct mail letters themselves, as aggravating as those can be. It's in what that money does to our communities in the form of policies that are bad for the everyday lives of real Americans but good for big business.

In the days after the spill in West Virginia, The New Yorker reported that some wealthier residents rented apartments in areas unaffected by the spill "in order to bathe their kids and wash clothes," while the "less fortunate put out buckets and hoped for rain."

Long after the official ban on drinking tap water was lifted, and the national media largely lost interest in West Virginia's environmental disaster, the effects in the lives of many people living in the affected areas were dramatic. In a state that already struggles with high levels of poverty, thousands of West Virginia families essentially lived without running water for months. Think Progress reported that six months after the spill, many residents in affected areas still felt unsafe drinking tap water.

Everyday West Virginians can't afford to spend millions to influence their elections, but they deserve safe drinking water. They deserve, as do all Americans, legislators who will work for ordinary people rather than for wealthy special interests.

At its core, the movement to overturn decisions like Citizens United and put our elections back in the hands of "we, the people" -- which is now millions strong and gaining steam around the country -- isn't about data wonks tracking the details of election spending, it's about people like those in West Virginia who couldn't use their water for months. It's about a shift in the way we do elections that paves the way for a shift in our policy priorities. And it's about the fight to get back to a system where politicians represent and respond to the needs of their communities, like the need for safe water, or safe schools, or a clean environment, rather than the interests of industry lobbyists. I'm pretty sure that's called democracy.