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Bill Would Cripple EPA's Power to Prevent Toxic Spills

Those who push an extreme anti-environmental agenda often use the concept of freedom to promote their ideas. They are not concerned with your freedom to breathe clean air or to drink clean water. Instead they want to give corporations the freedom to exploit natural resources without regard for the adverse impacts, and they want to ensure that polluters have freedom from accountability for the potentially deadly impacts of their actions.

In December, Kentucky politicians proposed to “free” unemployed residents from environmental laws that protect their health and well-being.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his colleague Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill they call the “Economic Freedom Zones Act of 2013.” Among other things, the bill would exempt polluters in high-poverty regions from complying with (and would bar the U.S. EPA from enforcing) water pollution permitting requirements under Clean Water Act section 402. (Adding insult to injury, the two politicians are billing this proposal as an anti-poverty measure.)

During the last few days, residents of the nearby Charleston, WV, area have been treated to a tragic glimpse of what a life free of environmental protections might be like. For people in the Appalachian coal-bearing region, these are just the latest developments in a long-running assault on human health and the environment.

The impact of such an extreme proposal is difficult to overstate. While the Clean Water Act strictly prohibits the discharge of pollutants without a permit, it is section 402 of the Act that the EPA relies on in most cases to impose enforceable pollution controls on specific sources and discharges. The Economic Freedom Zones Act would hamstring EPA’s enforcement of water pollution restrictions and oversight of state pollution permitting activities.

Fast forward to last week’s incident in neighboring West Virginia. Early on the morning of Jan. 9, Charleston residents reported smelling a strong licorice odor. Hours later, investigators with the state Department of Environmental Protection traced the odor to a chemical company’s storage tank located on the banks of the Elk River. An estimated 7,500 gallons were spilled.

The name of the chemical company—I am not making this up—is Freedom Industries.

News reports state that Freedom Industries did not report the spill to the DEP until just after noon on Thursday. Worse, despite the fact that its chemical holding tank is located just upriver from the drinking water intake that serves residents in nine counties, Freedom Industries apparently failed to notify the region’s water company at all. The chemical company also failed to report the specific chemical (4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in processing coal) to the water company, delaying effective clean-up action for another several hours. Residents still lack access to clean tap water, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people have been severely disrupted.

A pollution discharge of this sort is completely unacceptable. So is a world in which federal regulators might be barred by politically motivated legislation like the Economic Freedom Zones Act from using every tool they have to prevent and clean up similar spills in the future.

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