CHARLESTON, W.V.–The massive chemical spill that has left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians without running water prompted the state attorney general to vow to “get to the bottom” of the disaster.
“One of our primary concerns will be that West Virginians have answers to their questions about what happened, why it happened, and how this could have been prevented,” Attorney General Patrick Morrissey said in a statement. “We need to make sure this never happens again and that responsible parties are held accountable.”
The chemical leak originated at Freedom Industries Inc., when an aging above-ground tank on the banks of the Elk River leaked thousands of gallons of the toxic coal processing chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM). The chemical leak also spilled past a secondary containment area that was supposed to prevent such a disaster from occurring, emptying into the Elk River about one mile upstream from the West Virginia American Water processing plant that provides tap water to some 300,000 W.V. residents in nine counties.
The spill effectively shut down Charlestown, the largest city in the state. Streets were permeated with a strong odor of black licorice linked to the chemical, and bans were imposed on using the water for drinking, cooking, washing clothes, and virtually every other purpose.
As state officials vowed to hold the company accountable, U.S. lawmakers responded by calling for hearings on the federal safety laws designed to avert wide-scale chemical disasters such as the one caused by Freedom Industries.
“It is critically important that we understand how the Toxic Substances Control Act allowed a potentially harmful chemical to remain virtually untested for nearly 40 years,” Congressmen Henry Waxman, D-Calif, and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. said in a letter to Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s environmental panel. “We should not have to wait for a major contamination event to learn the most basic information about a toxic chemical in commerce.”
Ironically, on the same day the Freedom Industries leak was discovered, the House quietly passed a bill that effectively gutted federal hazardous waste laws, diminishing the country’s Superfund program that was established in 1980 to ensure that manufacturers of toxic chemicals and other big polluters clean up any sites they contaminate. The changes, voted in along party lines, shifts the burden of hazardous waste cleanup costs to the taxpayer.
Meanwhile, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection cited Freedom Industries for violating the state’s air and water pollution laws. The agency also ordered the company to remove hazardous materials from all the other tanks at the spill site.