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unEARTHED. The Earthjustice Blog

In West Virginia, Who Pays for Poisoning a River?


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View Lisa Evans's blog posts
13 January 2014, 9:46 AM
Overdue rules would ensure polluters pay and prevent the next big spill
The state capitol building in Charleston, WV. (Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock)

In 1980, when Love Canal and Times Beach still dominated headlines, Congress passed Superfund, a bipartisan bill requiring polluters to pay for the cleanup of their toxic messes. Over the last 30 years, Superfund has been responsible for the investigation and cleanup of thousands of toxic sites.

Yet EPA’s 30-year failure to comply with one important provision of Superfund imperils our health and pocketbooks. Superfund contained a mandate that the nation’s most dangerous industries maintain financial assurance (insurance or bonding) to guarantee that polluters would have adequate funds to clean up their spills. The mandate would also provide industries with a financial incentive for safe management of dangerous chemicals. The Act required EPA to begin establishing such requirements no later than 1985.

Yet the EPA has published no rules. And to make matters worse, last week the Republican-led House passed H.R. 2279—a bill that prevents EPA from issuing these critical financial assurance regulations—despite the fact that companies have already defaulted on billions of dollars of cleanup costs at the most dangerous hazardous waste sites in the country.

This week the issue is again in the headlines. Three hundred thousand in Charleston, WV are without drinking water due to a chemical spill of a coal-cleaning compound from Freedom Industries, a chemical company located just upriver from the area’s largest water treatment plant. In the days following the spill, nearly 800 calls were made to the state's poison control center, 169 persons were treated at emergency rooms, and 10 people were hospitalized. Life in Charleston ground to a halt as schools and businesses were forced to close while residents were warned to use tap water for nothing but flushing their toilets.

While the precise cause of the spill and the cost of cleanup are not yet known, it is abundantly clear that if the EPA had complied with the 1985 Superfund mandate, the spill may never have occurred and Freedom Industries would be guaranteed to have the resources to clean up the mess. This is not the first time West Virginia residents were put in harm's way in the state’s “chemical valley.” An explosion at a chemical plant owned by Bayer CropScience killed two employees in 2008. The Bayer plant manufactured the same chemical released in a 1985 explosion that killed 10,000 in Bhopal, India.

Today Charleston residents literally thirst for justice. The EPA must promulgate a rule as soon as possible to ensure chemical companies can pay for their mistakes and to render these toxic spills and explosions far less likely to occur in the first place.

How can the State Department that works for the people ignore these recommendations. from 2008 and 2011? Are we living in Russia or are we in a Democracy where the peoples wishes are heard. Incidentally aren't we paying their salaries to defend us? If so, someone should be fired..They just are not looking out for the people's health. and doing their jobs.

According to the January 12, 2014 issue of the Charleston Gazette, the Chemical Safety Board recommended additional safety measures in 2008 and 2011. These recommendations were ignored by the State Department of Health and Human Resources and stonewalled by the industry representatives. To paraphrase the industries comment "we don't need any more damn regulations".

Also according to the CG article the State has not inspected the Freedom Chemical plant since 1991 and at that time it was a different company with a different product. Not my idea of due diligence but the industry seems to think it adequate.

In the mean time the Elk flows into the Kanawha, the Kanawha into the Ohio and look out downstream. As a resident of the State of Ohio I would like to sue the State of WV for polluting "my" river!

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