On Jan. 9, 10,000 gallons of the chemical MCHM spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River. Within hours, residents complained of the smell of licorice in their tap water, a signal that MCHM, a chemical compound used in coal production, was in the water supply. Soon the warning signals sounded from local and state officials — stay clear of drinking, cooking or bathing with water from the faucet.
In the weeks since and even after receiving the all-clear from environmental regulators, many West Virginians remain skeptical of the safety of their water supply.
Who can blame them? The public’s trust has been violated and restoration will take a very long time.
Like many states under the economic sway of industries that employ hazardous chemicals, West Virginia gave only a winking pass at vigorous protection of its air and water. Tough environmental regulation isn’t easy for some states. Enforcement makes enemies among big polluters. Those industries put their money on candidates who are skilled at looking the other way.
From the perspective of politicians, about the only downside of these cozy relationships is when a crisis hits, say, a 10,000-gallon leak of a chemical that, as the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources put it, can cause “severe burning in the throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.”
West Virginia politicians are said to be scrambling now, giving off at least the impression of doing something to protect the public. Such conversions tend to fade, we are sad to note. Once the crisis recedes, once drinking water no longer smells, once some other issue has taken precedence, lawmakers in West Virginia are likely to return to business as usual.
It’s all so depressingly familiar to anyone in Alabama. We, too, have vast natural resources that receive only scant oversight from under-budgeted, overworked environmental regulators.
“West Virginia has a pattern of resisting federal oversight and what they consider EPA interference, and that really puts workers and the population at risk,” Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently told The New York Times.
We could easily swap “West Virginia” with “Alabama” in the sentence above and nothing would change. Our hope is that it would not take a crisis to change minds in Montgomery.