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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Environment - "Chemical Spill Muddies Picture in a State Wary of Regulations"

Sunday's NY Times has a long, front-page story reported by Trip Gabriel, Michael Wines, and Coral Davenport re the West Virginia "chemical spill that left more than 300,000 people without usable water for days." Some quotes:

The spill, which occurred when 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to clean coal leaked from an aging, outmoded storage tank into the Elk River, played out in a state that outsiders often see as a place apart. West Virginia, with its strong ties to coal and chemicals, has long had a fierce opposition to environmental regulations. It has also been the scene of five major accidents related to coal or chemicals in eight years.

But amid an energy boom that stretches from Pennsylvania to North Dakota and the belief among many conservatives that the nation suffers from too much regulation, the issues involved have enormous relevance well beyond West Virginia’s borders. They include all the questions about the incident raised by regulators and environmental critics: why the tank was so close to a water treatment plant, how often it was inspected and by whom, the hazard status accorded the chemical inside the tanks, what regulations might have prevented the spill and what would have been their costs. * * *

At the very least, the spill raised concerns for many West Virginians about the state’s attitudes toward regulation.

“This ought to be a huge wake-up call,” said Barbara Evans Fleischauer, a Democratic member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. “I don’t think people want the government to get out of the way right now. What we’re supposed to do in state government is protect the health and welfare of our citizens.” * * *

West Virginia’s record of deferring to industry is long and deep, reflecting its heavy economic reliance on coal, chemicals and, most recently, natural gas. The tank farm where chemicals were stored, just a mile and a half upstream from the intake of the state’s largest water provider, seems to have fallen outside the bounds of multiple state and federal antipollution laws. * * *

West Virginia imposes an unusual hurdle for its Department of Environmental Protection: Regulations it writes are not enforceable until approved by the Legislature, giving lawmakers influenced by lobbyists a chance to revise them. Last year a regulation requiring natural-gas drillers to disclose the chemicals injected into the ground during hydraulic fracturing was revised at the request of Halliburton, the giant oil-services company, to keep the disclosure confidential.

In recent years the Department of Environmental Protection has moved to weaken limits on the amount of aluminum, a mining pollutant, in state waterways. Last year a bill sought by coal lobbyists ordering the department to revise limits on discharges of selenium, which is toxic to fish and expensive to clean up, passed the House of Delegates and the State Senate without opposition.

“A lot of our elected officials think it’s political suicide to take a stand against coal or in favor of the E.P.A.,” said Angie Rosser, the executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, a conservation group.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 19, 2014 08:51 AM
Posted to Environment