Jan 20, 2014
On January 9, inspectors discovered that 7,500 gallons of MCHM, a chemical used to process coal, had leaked into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia. Some 300,000 people were left without water for drinking, bathing, or other uses for five days or more, and at least 200 people visited emergency rooms after drinking the poisoned water.
Freedom Industries stored the MCHM in a tank from 1938 that was put together with rivets, instead of the more modern method of welding. These old tanks are “just an accident waiting to happen,” said one storage tank company manager. The tank that leaked was surrounded by a retaining wall supposed to catch any liquid that leaked, but that wall wasn’t maintained either, and it allowed the chemical to flow into the Elk River.
The government is as much to blame as the company. There are lots of laws on the books that are supposed to prevent an accident like this, including the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, but they weren’t enforced. Inspectors had been on the site recently, but they had only been there to check air quality, not the quality of the tanks. The state of West Virginia had no response plan for the release of a chemical like this, even though the area around Charleston has so many chemical plants and tanks that it’s called “Chemical Valley.”
This is not the first accident to happen in Chemical Valley in recent years. In 2008, a Bayer Cropscience pesticide explosion killed two workers and injured eight others. In 2010, a DuPont plant released a nerve gas used in World War I three times, killing another worker. Each time, government regulators found the company cut corners to save money, but nothing changed.
It’s obvious that dangerous chemicals need to be stored safely, away from the water people need, and we have the technology to do so. But the corporations will continue to endanger our lives to save a few bucks, and the politicians will continue to let them do so, until we hold them to account.