The problem is that chemical companies don't want more layers of accountability. That's clear by the amount of money spent on chemical industry lobbying every year. Also, it costs money. Officials seem hesitant to ask chemical industries in the valley to fund the program, which is how the Contra Costa County California ISO is funded. Perhaps, during our fifth request, we need to ask state and federal government to pitch in funds for this preemptive program rather than spending their resources responding to water emergencies that could have been prevented in the first place.
So why did I say that this incident might have occurred even if the Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program had already been implemented? Because, like the program after which it is modeled, it probably would have only reviewed facilities mandated to submit an EPA risk management plan, which includes facilities using extremely hazardous substances, places such as Dow, Bayer and DuPont. Freedom Industries Etowah River Terminal didn't have to submit a risk management plan because this chemical is not considered an extremely hazardous substance. Instead, the chemical is regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act, a law that allows tens of thousands of chemicals to be placed on the market without fully knowing their effects. (An important note here is that what constitutes "extremely hazardous substance" seems to be an ever evolving list of chemicals guided more by the national chemical catastrophe of the month rather than deeper systematic and long-term analysis.)
At least with facilities required to submit risk management plans, companies must identify and define what would happen in a worst-case scenario. While the water emergency is not quite a worst-case scenario yet, the kind of chemical safety analysis a risk management plan provides would have better systematized how we understand the dangers present at facilities like Freedom Industries Etowah River Terminal.
The flexibility in the CSB recommendation gives the director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department the authority to define the characteristics of chemical facilities that would be covered by the new program. This seems like the perfect time to include facilities like Freedom Industries Etowah River Terminal in its purview, and maybe define some other characteristics as well.
Implementing the Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program is only one thing we can do to help prevent such future disasters in the Chemical Valley. However, chemical disasters will continue to occur as long as toxic chemicals are produced. The dangers will remain present until we, the people, hold the government and industry accountable for better chemical safety standards. We need to ensure that chemicals are effectively tested for safety before being introduced to the public and prior to manufacture, storage, and application.
What if we restructured the way we think about jobs and put people in the valley back to work figuring out new, better and healthier ways of doing things that doesn't require the use of such toxic chemicals? Regardless of how we do it, let's not wait for another disaster like this to occur before we put measures in place to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
Nye is the president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, a Kanawha Valley-based organization dedicated to promoting international human rights pertaining to chemical safety through education and advocacy.