New Castle News


January 16, 2014

Our Opinion: West Virginia spills shows need for changes

NEW CASTLE — Overbearing government regulations on business are a common complaint these days.

Critics of regulation complain of pointless and overbearing government meddling as harmful to the profits of corporations and their ability to create jobs.

How then should we assess what’s been happening in Charleston, W.Va., in the last week or so, after a major chemical spill impacted the water supply for about 300,000 people?

The response in this situation, of course, is that government needs to do more to protect its citizens from the environmental recklessness of private business.

So what really happened in Charleston? The matter is still under investigation, but the chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, leaked from a 40,000-gallon tank on the property of Freedom Industries. It ended up in the Elk River, which supplies drinking water to the area.

News reports claimed this particular site was never inspected by state or federal environmental regulators. Yes, that’s right. Despite the presence of vast amounts of a dangerous chemical next to a drinking water source, no one in government bothered to look at what sort of safety mechanisms were in place for preventing water contamination.

There appear to be two reasons for that. First, Freedom Industries was storing the chemical, but it didn’t make it. Sites that merely store dangerous materials appear to receive less scrutiny than those actually producing it.

Second, regulators told journalists that staffing limitations require them to focus their attention where they think it’s needed. And it seems no one thought there was a need to focus on Freedom Industries.

In retrospect, that decision wasn’t a particularly wise one.

The idea that less oversight is needed just because a company is storing, rather than making, dangerous chemicals baffles us. Yet we have a relatively recent example in Lawrence County with the Remacor site in West Pittsburg. Eventually, it had to be cleaned up by the government.

Sites that store dangerous chemicals sometimes function as separate legal entities from larger operations. The idea is that if some liability arises because of the chemicals, the business can go bankrupt without harming the larger operation. However, that leaves government — and taxpayers — to pick up the cleaning tab.

The West Virginia incident demonstrates government obviously has a crucial role to play in environmental protection and the proper handling of chemicals. Once what happened in Charleston is fully understood, it should lead to better safety mechanisms.

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