CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The fallout from massive disruption of our water supply has brought political realities into full public view.
Gov. Tomblin informed us that the disaster has little to do with the coal industry, despite the fact that the chemical in question is commonly used to process coal and has contaminated water supplies throughout the state.
Sen. Manchin met with coal and chemical lobbyists to reassure them that he has their backs, even as the disaster unfolded.
Officials pretend to knowledge that they do not have about health consequences leaked into the water through their own regulatory negligence.
In the absence of information about threats to the water supply throughout the state, legislative leaders focus on remedies that address above ground storage tanks, without addressing the anti-regulatory bias that prevented existing laws from being enforced.
It is an old, and depressing, story. The main chemical in question, crude MCHM, was grandfathered out of the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976 as not serious enough to be subject to regulation under the law, and is but one of the 140,000 chemicals not now covered by the law. Hence, like a host of other dangerous substances, it has simply not been taken seriously. Existing laws that might prevent disasters are often unenforced because officials fail to carry out inspections. Or regulators are underfunded or imbibe the prevailing anti-regulatory ethos or are undercut by a lobbyist-dominated Legislature that approves regulations.
Of course, all good West Virginians are supposed to know that the federal government, in particular the Environmental Protection Agency, is the real source of our problems. At the congressional level, Sen. Manchin seeks to protect our jobs by pushing legislation to prevent the EPA from protecting waters contaminated by coal companies, after attempting to achieve the same result through a lawsuit.
Who cares if people elsewhere make fun of us when we allow such things to happen? Like white Southerners seeking to protect states' rights in the good old days, we allow our leaders to suggest that we can take care of our own problems without outside help.
The federal Chemical Safety Board is investigating how our water supply got contaminated only because an unusually responsible leader like Sen. Rockefeller asked it to. It should be noted that the CSB emerged from federal legislation arising out of a series of chemical disasters in the 1980s, including some in West Virginia.
The 1985 aldicarb leak in Union Carbide's Institute plant obtained much national notice because the plant served as the model for a "sister" plant in Bhopal, lndia, that was responsible for thousands of deaths the year before.
For many years, methyl isocyanate (MIC), the chemical that led to the Bhopal disaster, remained stored in Institute in much larger quantities than the amount leaked in India, while chemical plants in other states and countries stopped storing it altogether.