The recent chemical spill in West Virginia has green groups clamoring for more regulation, including expansion of Environmental Protection Agency power under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Early on, however, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California rightly told the press, “We can fix this now” using existing laws rather than passing new ones.
Boxer’s strong opposition to the current TSCA reform bill (S. 1009) may explain her position. Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana and Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey introduced this legislation just weeks before Sen. Lautenberg passed away this past spring. It appears that Boxer does not want this compromise bill—pushed by both EDF and industry—to gain any momentum from the chemical spill. Whatever her motivations, Boxer is right that there’s no need for a massive expansion of chemical regulations or TSCA to address this accident and related local emergency planning failures. She is, however, cosponsoring the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act of 2014 (S. 1961) along with West Virginia’s Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, which would mandate more tank inspections. On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on the topic.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened in West Virginia: On January 9, the local government discovered that one of Freedom Industries chemical tanks at the Charleston, West Virginia-based Etowah River Terminal was leaking a chemical mixture called Crude MCHM (composed mostly of a chemical called 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol) that was blended with a small portion of a chemical called PPH. The tank had released an estimated 10,000 gallons of the chemical, which entered a nearby waterway that leads down to the intake point for the city’s local water supply facility, located 1.5 miles down the river. After traveling down the river, the chemical reached the intake port for the community’s water supply facility and then was piped out to residences before water officials knew what happened. As soon as they learned about the spill, local officials quickly issued water advisories and provided bottled water to the community. Thanks to their swift action, there were no serious illnesses among a population of 300,000 people, but a number people suffered short-term health effects such as skin and eye irritations.
Apparently, not only did the company tanks fail, so did their containment systems, and there was no spill plan in place. News reports also indicate that the tanks had not been inspected in decades. Local officials and Freedom Industries may have avoided this accident had they implemented emergency planning measures that included site inspections.