Almost Forgotten, West Virginia: Your Sunday Morning Conversation

A week after a massive chemical spill at a Freedom Industries storage facility contaminated the Elk River in West Virginia with 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol and forced 300,000 residents of the state to go without potable, usable water, life is slowly starting to return to normal.Well, that's the casual way of describing what's happening, anyway.

A week after a massive chemical spill at a Freedom Industries storage facility contaminated the Elk River in West Virginia with 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol and forced 300,000 residents of the state to go without potable, usable water, life is slowly starting to return to normal.

Well, that's the casual way of describing what's happening, anyway. In truth, the story continues to develop in sad and interesting ways. Two days after local authorities gave the all-clear and started to lift the ban on water usage, we found out that was a blown call -- area hospitals very quickly "saw an uptick in patients after the 'do not use' advisory was lifted," and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning to pregnant women, "Maybe don't drink this stuff, after all." (I am paraphrasing.)

Meanwhile, about 15 miles up I-64 from Charleston, in the town of Nitro, you'll never guess what's been discovered. Unless, of course, you immediately guessed, "Oh, there was probably another Freedom Industries chemical storage facility with a similar level of substandard containment and due cause to issue citations for multiple safety violations." In which case, points for you!

The good news, I suppose, is that timely scrutiny has been applied to another environmental time bomb. Lord knows that's not the norm. As National Geographic reported this week, the "coal-cleansing chemical that spilled from Freedom Industries' storage tank into the Elk River last Thursday is only the latest insult in what for some has been a lifetime of industrial accidents that have poisoned groundwater, spewed toxic gas emissions, and caused fires, explosions, and other disasters that neither state nor federal regulators have been able to protect against."

As one woman in that National Geographic article put it, "Welcome to our world." From there, you start to think about West Virginia's troubled history of chemical accidents. And you start to remember its troubled history of corporate mining accidents. And you start to remember the widespread rural poverty. And you start to understand that somewhere, at the nexus of corporate power and the regulatory regime set up to provide public safety, there is something rotting -- and it's a rot fueled by a certain amount of corruption and incompetence. And you realize that the words, "life is returning to normal for the residents of West Virginia," actually conceal a multitude of sins.

Of course, far away from the hinterlands of the Mountaineer State, in the land of the Acela corridor, another story of corruption and incompetence has earned the media spotlight. I am referring, of course, to "Bridgegate/Bridgeghazi" -- the story that pushed the problems of the casually-poisoned residents of West Virginia off of the same Sunday Morning chat-show stage that only a week before had taken great care to mention that it had gotten kind of chilly in Acelastan. Naturally, the big draw of the "Bridgegate" story is the presence of Chris Christie, a presumed future fixture of the 2016 presidential race who -- if the scandal reaches his desk -- might end up getting killed off in the first reel of this Grand Presidential Election Narrative, a la Janet Leigh in "Psycho."

Over at the Guardian, Ana Marie Cox breaks with Beltway norms, positing that what's happened in Charleston is actually a "bigger scandal" than what's going on in Trenton. "If we called West Virginia 4-methylcyclohexane-methanol leak 'Watergate,'" she asks, "do you think the political press would pay more attention?" Sadly, the likely answer is, "Why start now?"

It says a lot that it's fallen, in part, to National Geographic's Laura Parker to explain what's been going on in West Virginia and to try to apply some accountability. As Parker reports, the chemical industry's presence in West Virginia has spawned a bevy of chemical-storage facilities, dotting the banks of the state's rivers from Point Pleasant to the Gauley Bridge. Over the course of a century, the chemical industry and the coal industry have been in a local competition with one another to see which can contaminate more drinking water (Parker notes that the coal industry is winning). Locals have sought relief from all of this, pointing to legislation passed in California that created a public safety program that's "minimized industrial accidents" in the Golden State. (A similar proposal "died in the [West Virginia] legislature without coming up for a vote," reports Parker.)

So, whose job is it to man the watchtower over Chemical Valley? Jedediah Purdy, writing for The New Yorker, provides the answer:

It was, apparently, no one's job to regularly monitor Freedom Industries' tanks along the Elk, even though state officials knew that hazardous chemicals were sitting near the West Virginia American Water intake. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources produced its most recent "Source Water" report on the site in 2002; it includes no reference to either [4-methylcyclohexane methanol] or Freedom Industries. ... The state's Department of Environmental Protection inspected the tanks in 1991, and found nothing amiss when, in 2010, it responded to a report of a licorice scent, or in 2012, when it updated its air-pollution oversight. The only permit issued by a state agency for the site governs stormwater runoff. Local officials have sometimes asked for new authority to plan for chemical spills, but those requests go nowhere in a state government that habitually defers to both coal and chemical companies.

Purdy goes on to note that the interplay between federal regulators and state officials is highly dysfunctional. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration leave "matters entirely to state officials," and in return for this demonstration of faith, they are rewarded with political potshots. "Attacking federal environmental regulation is regarded as a safe bet in West Virginia state politics," Purdy writes, adding, "The entire crisis is a tableau of abdication: years of privatization and non-regulation followed by panic."

All of which suggests that Ana Marie Cox is really onto something when she suggests that what's going on in West Virginia is a more worthy -- even juicier -- story to cover than "Bridgegate." But, oh! Think of the work involved! "Bridgegate," at the very least, comes with the convenience of an email that says, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Whereas, there's no email anywhere that reads, "Time for a decades-long tableau of abdication in Charleston." There doesn't need to be when the abandonment of responsibility is simply part of the natural order. And yet, if some long-lost missive with those words could be ferreted out, things might be different.

Or perhaps not, because as Cox notes, what's happening in West Virginia forces us to have a different sort of reckoning. Unlike the woes of Chemical Valley, "Bridgegate" does not force anyone "to take a look at our own lives or behavior." And here is the inconvenient truth that lies waiting be discovered -- the vulnerable tributaries and the decimated mountaintops of West Virginia are a symbol-slash-scar that testifies, each and every day, to the sacrifice that West Virginians have made to provide a wealthier and more convenient life for the rest of the nation. We should ask: To whom do we owe a greater responsibility -- the temporarily delayed travelers of the George Washington Bridge, or the people who gutted their own state to provide us all with electricity and who can now never look at the water flowing from their own taps without a creeping sense of suspicion?

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, a disaffected House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) met questions about West Virginia with a desultory shrug. "We have enough regulations on the books. ... Why wasn't this plant inspected since 1991?" Oh, oh, oh, I know! It's almost as if those regulations, despite being "on the books," put fear in the heart of nobody! Probably because the lobbyists whispering in the ears of the members of our esteemed (by a whopping 13 percent of Americans, anyway) Congress have convinced all of you that underfunding, understaffing, and undermining the relevant regulators and establishing a "trust but never verify" system of oversight was a responsible thing to do.

It's funny. Last week, the big "Bridgegate" media meme was that Chris Christie's forthrightness, his action-taking, his apologies, and his melodramatic demonstration of pure concern for ordinary people were among the highest and most "presidential" virtues a person could demonstrate. That's all forgotten now. The people of West Virginia can probably relate.


EIGHT WORDS, 11 SYLLABLES: There can be no doubt that when those who are considering a run for the GOP nomination had to hear all about how Christie's post-scandal press conference was the sort of thing that would make him a better politician, they all thought, "Great, now what? Do I have to manufacture a scandal now, too, just to keep up?" Probably! At the very least, there is now a "strategic hard-truth telling gap." Luckily, columnist Jeremy Lott has a solution for Republicans: If you get the question, "Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?" then your answer is, "I believe war in Iraq was a mistake."

"NO, NO, NO, WE'RE NOT DONE": During the Deepwater Horizon disaster, I was pleasantly reminded that the reporters who ply their trade for local newspapers and television stations are often made of sterner stuff than their celebrity counterparts inside the Beltway. Down in West Virginia, a reporter for ABC News' Charleston affiliate named Kallie Cart earns a commendation for valor when she wouldn't let Freedom Industries president Gary Southern decide when a press conference was over. Watch the video here. Cart, by the way, is eight months pregnant. I suppose one could say she was kicking ass for two, but really, she was doing it for many more.

If you've got a story you want to share on Sunday, feel free to drop me a line!

MEMO TO COLLEGE GRADUATES: YOU'RE SCREWED: "In one chart," as they say, you'll learn "The number [of college graduates] who get good non-college jobs has plummeted from 50 percent to 35 percent. The number in low-wage jobs has risen from 15 percent to 20 percent. And needless to say, these grads also have quite a bit more student loan debt than grads from the early 90s."

OMNIBUS OMNISHAMBLES: Our own Zach Carter reports that the House GOP keeps on defunding ACORN -- a thing that has not even existed for a long time -- four more times in the omnibus appropriations bill. Seeing as the House Republicans are so frightfully concerned about imaginary organizations, one wonders why they keep letting SMERSH and the Friends Of Hamas and Jukt Micronics off the hook.

CRYING IN BASEBALL, GRAPHED: Some fun for film buffs: the folks at Flowing Data have taken the top 100 most memorable movie quotes (as selected by the American Film Institute) and have rendered them into chart form. 'Tis delightful!


[You'll find more Sunday Reads and more on my Rebel Mouse page. What stories mattered to you this week? Drop me a line and let us know what you are reading.]

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Jonathan Steele

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