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Following last week’s chemical spill, hundreds of thousands of West Virginians continue to live without safe running water. An update on the crisis and whether other states’ water supplies are at risk.
- Joel Achenbach science reporter, The Washington Post; writer for Achenblog; author of "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher."
- Daniel Horowitz managing director, U.S. Chemical Safety Board
- Mary Anne Hitt director, Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.
- Daniel Simmons director of regulatory and state affairs, Institute for Energy Research.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. For the past five days, hundreds of thousands of West Virginia residents have been washing, cooking, and bathing with bottled water -- the cause, a chemical leak into the nearby Elk River that contaminated the water supply. The accident was the third one in five years for the region known as Chemical Alley.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about what happened in West Virginia and the implications for the safety of water supplies nationally: Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club, Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post, and Daniel Simmons of the Institute for Energy Research.
MS. DIANE REHMWe did invite a representative of Freedom Industries. They have declined requests for interviews. We also invited representatives of coal and mining associations, but they, too, declined to participate. First, joining us from Charleston, W.Va., is Daniel Horowitz. He's managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. That's an independent agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. And welcome to you, Daniel Horowitz.
MR. DANIEL HOROWITZThank you.
REHMDaniel, I know your team arrived in West Virginia yesterday. Tell us the current state of the water availability, how many residents have it, how many are still waiting.
HOROWITZWell, water is being gradually restored across the area as the system gets flushed out. And that's really being handled by the state authorities and federal agencies they're consulting with. And we hope that water gets reconnected just as soon as possible.
REHMTell me how you're conducting your investigation. What are you looking at?
HOROWITZWell, we started work at the site yesterday. And any root-cause investigation like we do really rests on three foundations: witness interviews, document requests, and an examination of the site, and then testing and all sorts of examinations under that. So we're proceeding on all those fronts. We are hoping to commence our witness interviews today.
HOROWITZWe sent an extensive document request to the company, Freedom Industries, yesterday. And so we're proceeding on all fronts. We looked at the site. There's not a lot of damage there. But, obviously, there was a significant release of some type. So we need to get to the bottom of why that happened so that we can prevent it from happening again in the future.
REHMTell me about the chemical MCHM that leaked into it. I think it's pronounced methylcyclohexane methanol. Tell me about that.
HOROWITZWell, I have to say that was a new chemical to us. We had never encountered it in any of our previous investigations. And it really gets to, I think, a very profound point, which is there are literally tens of thousands of chemicals that are out there for which we don't have complete hazard information. This particular chemical is used as a flotation aid in the processing of coal. So that's its purpose. And there's not a great deal known about its toxicity. And that's one of the reasons why this situation here has been so difficult for all concerned.
REHMYou know, it's so fascinating to me that here it -- in its spill, has been considered so hazardous, and yet not hazardous enough to fall under inspection laws. How come?
HOROWITZWell, there are upwards of 100,000 chemicals or more out in commerce. And we really have complete toxicological data -- how do they affect people -- for only a rather small number. So, if you look at what the federal government requires for this chemical, which is called a Material Safety Data Sheet, a lot of the toxic properties are simply unknown. And that has been a real predicament for the authorities here.
HOROWITZAnd obviously I think they have acted on the side of caution which is all you can do in that circumstance. But you never want to be in the position of performing an experiment like this on your drinking-water supply. So that's why it's so important to prevent these kinds of leaks in chemical releases. And, as a general principle, they are certainly preventable.
REHMI understand that Cincinnati, Ohio, and Kentucky have both shut their water-intake valves as a precaution on the Ohio River for at least 48 hours, starting Tuesday night. We just learned that this morning. Also that Sen. Rockefeller is going to conduct some investigations on his own.
HOROWITZWell, I think it needs to be looked at from a lot of different avenues. Our goal as an agency -- we're non-regulatory -- we're there to conduct a root-cause investigation. Let's get all the facts out onto the table and, on that basis, develop some safety recommendations for better practices and better regulatory oversight, if that's necessary, so that this doesn't happen again. This is really a situation that has to be avoided. We can't be having unknown chemicals with unknown properties going into drinking-water supplies.
REHMIndeed. And speaking of practices, Daniel, people are wondering why the storage facility itself was allowed to be located so close to the largest water-treatment plant in the state. How do you answer that?
HOROWITZWell, that's something we really need to look into in detail. And, of course, that's a major focus of our investigation. There are a lot of terminals along waterways -- that's true across the country -- I don't know how many hundreds or thousands of them. And some of them are bound to be close to these critical supplies and drinking-water supplies. And how that whole process works is something that definitely warrants a further look.
HOROWITZIn this case, the facility had been there for many decades. It was originally a Pennzoil terminal for petroleum products. It's now used for other chemicals. It's been there for a very long time. And so what sorts of plans exist for safeguarding these water supply intakes, that's something we'll certainly look at -- as well as, what can be done within these facilities to assure that tanks don't leak.
REHMI understand the governor announced yesterday that he is lifting the bans on drinking water for certain zones. But how can you be absolutely certain that those zones are actually safe? I mean, someone said, are you going to give water to your 3-year-old that smells of licorice? Are you going to bathe in water that may actually burn your skin?
HOROWITZWell, people should listen to their local and state authorities. It's just a very difficult situation for all concerned because, up until now, there has been so little toxicological information on this particular chemical. For example, if you look at that Material Safety Data Sheet I mentioned earlier, the section called, most important symptoms and effects, both acute and delayed, it says: No data available.
REHMDaniel, how does this accident compare to the Bayer and West, Texas fertilizer plant explosions that you investigated back in 2011?
HOROWITZRight. Well, this is the Chemical Valley. Historically and currently, it's the real center of the chemical and mining industry. But there have been some very serious accidents here over the past few years. In 2008, there was an explosion at the Bayer CropSciences plant just a short distance from Charleston.
HOROWITZAnd that's a very famous plant in chemical safety in that it is the -- or was at the time the sister plant of the famous plant in Bhopal, India where there was a huge toxic-gas release in 1984 that killed thousands of people. And what we found in investigating that plant -- you might think that a plant that held such highly toxic chemicals would be very closely regulated and overseen.
HOROWITZWhat we found were some very basic process-safety deficiencies that had not been detected either by the company or regulators. So what we recommended, coming out of that case, was increased oversight by local and state authorities of highly hazardous chemical operations. And we still think that's important. It's almost a universal finding in CSB investigations, where we go into these catastrophes, as we find that the regulators just hadn't been provided with enough resources or tools to do preventive work.
REHMBut, Daniel, you've been around for a long time. It would seem to raise the question as to whether storage facilities like the one being run by Freedom Industries in West Virginia ought to be more closely regulated.
HOROWITZWell, that is a very important point. And, not only the Bayer case I mentioned, but the CSB has gone to several terminal facilities around the country where chemicals are simply stored and then transported on. And what we find are some regulatory gaps. And a lot of the toughest regulatory standards for chemical plants and oil refineries do not necessarily apply to these facilities.
HOROWITZAnd the concrete result of that is they're not under the same requirements necessarily for hazard analysis, preventive maintenance and inspection, training programs, operating procedures, all those good practices that we like to see everybody in the chemical industry following. And so that's going to be a question that we need to look into further is, what is the best way to provide effective oversight for these sorts of terminal operations?
REHMDaniel Horowitz, he's managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. I hope you'll stay with us, Daniel, as we go through this morning's program. And to all of you, we'll be taking your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the spill of chemicals into the Elk River, which has apparently -- for how long we do not know -- contaminated water in the West Virginia area. Here in the studio, Mary Anne Hitt. She's director of the Sierra Club's Clean (sic) Coal Campaign. Joel Achenbach, science reporter for the Washington Post, and Daniel Simmons. He's director of regulatory and state affairs at the Institute for Energy Research.
REHMDaniel Horowitz is still on the line with us. He's managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Joel Achenbach, you spent part of last week in West Virginia reporting on the chemical leak. What's your reaction to what Daniel Horowitz said about the investigation and then give us your own impression.
MR. JOEL ACHENBACHWell, that was a fascinating interview just now, Diane. The fact that there's 100,000 chemicals in commerce out there is something I think many of us didn't know that number. And at tens of thousands of them, we don't have good data on what their, you know, effects are. In this case, this is a chemical that people in West Virginia probably had never heard of -- most of them -- unless they're working in the coal processing industry.
MR. JOEL ACHENBACHAnd when I went there, you know, I went into the facility, just sort of drove in and looked around for a minute. And, you know, they weren't thrilled to see me but they were cordial about it.
REHMWho was not thrilled to see you?
ACHENBACHWell, they weren't giving any interviews, but there was an attorney there who gave me a copy of an article saying the stuff was not very toxic. But the facility -- understand there's this row of tanks. These are 35,000-gallon tanks that are right on the bluff right above the river. And they were -- these go back to the '40s.
ACHENBACHI think Mr. Horowitz said that this has been around for a while. This is old infrastructure from back in the day when this was a Pennzoil plant. And the tanks are right on the river because, you know, a river is not just a place for recreation. It is part of our industrial -- it's an industrial transportation mechanism. And this is the Elk River. It's just a couple miles east of the junction of the Kanawha River.
ACHENBACHAnd so this is on the same side of the river as the intake for the water system. So it was kind of primed for failure. And this is a failure that wouldn't happen if everything in the world worked perfectly. But everything in the world doesn't work perfectly. And so this was a single point failure. There was a 1" hole at the bottom of one tank. Now, how that hole got there we don't know. You know, I just...
REHMWhat did the hole look like?
ACHENBACHWell, I didn't see it. It's at the bottom of the tank. It's actually partially buried in the ground.
ACHENBACHAnd the regulators said they went in there. So the Charleston Gazette had a very good story. They had great coverage on this. They said that when the inspectors for the state showed up, they'd sniffed out this leak after people were calling, saying, what's that smell.
ACHENBACHAnd it does smell like black licorice. It's not the worst smell you've ever heard (sic) in your life -- you ever smelled in your life. It's not...
REHMBut it's a smell.
ACHENBACHIt's very powerful. A little bit goes a long way. It's a little bit like the mercaptan they put into natural gas, so you can smell it in your house. It's a -- a tiny bit is very noticeable. So they show up at the facility on Thursday, and there's a pool of this liquid outside of a tank. It's leaked from the tank into this "containment area" that was misnamed since, in fact, the wall is an old cinderblock wall, you know, from, you know, vintage 1940 or 1950.
ACHENBACHWho knows? It's a very old wall. And the material just leaked right through the porous wall down the bank and into the river. So -- and then from there it's just basic physics gravity, you know. There's nothing very high tech about this disaster. It's just really simple. You know, gunk flowed into the water system, and now it's in all the plumbing.
REHMMary Anne Hitt, turning to you of the Sierra Club's Clean (sic) Coal Campaign, I gather that this chemical is used to cleanse the coal after it's mined. Why? Explain that.
MS. MARY ANNE HITTThat's correct. It's a pleasure to be with you, Diane. And it's the Beyond Coal Campaign at Sierra Club, Beyond Coal. And the use of this chemical is part of the processing of the coal after it's mined because, when it comes out of the ground, there are a lot of things in there other than just coal. And they want to send as sort of pure of a product to the power plants as they can.
MS. MARY ANNE HITTSo it's really important to note, they use several different chemicals to process the coal in water. They then load the coal up into train cars and ship it off to the power plants. But this water that's filled with this and many other chemicals -- I would call it a witch's brew of chemicals -- is not exactly disposed of hygienically. It is pumped into old abandoned underground mines and stored behind earthen dams all throughout Appalachia. Some of them...
HITTSome of them are larger than the Hoover Dam. They are massive, massive dams to the tune of billions of gallons a year of this stuff that's pumped into underground mines and then getting into the groundwater or stored behind these giant -- hundreds of giant earthen dams. This is a story that people in the coalfields have been trying to tell for a long time, that this very unknown -- as we are now learning -- set of chemicals are being really put willy-nilly into the groundwater.
HITTAnd hopefully -- this is a great tragedy for the people of Charleston. It's very scary. I live in West Virginia, and my daughter is an 11th generation West Virginian through my husband. So this is a very immediate tragedy for the people affected, and it's also pulling the curtain back on something that people in Appalachia have been dealing with for a long time.
REHMBut it's not only West Virginia. You've got Ohio and Kentucky now concerned about their own water supply. Were you surprised to learn about this spill?
HITTWell, I've been working in Appalachia on coal issues for over 10 years. And I always think nothing can surprise me. But a couple of things about this really surprised me. One was the fact that this facility had not been visited by state inspectors since 1991 -- 1991. This is a facility holding hazardous chemicals immediately upstream of the biggest drinking water intake in West Virginia.
HITTAnd no one had inspected it since 1991. And, secondly, it -- on the flipside I guess it didn't surprise me sadly because for those of us who lived and worked in Appalachia for a long time, we have a political environment where our leaders are very hostile to the EPA, to federal environmental protections.
HITTOur Gov. Tomblin was just quoted in the state of the state just a couple of days before this disaster saying, he will "never back down from the EPA" because of its misguided policies on coal. So you have a kind of politically hostile climate around these environmental protections. And you have state agencies that are woefully underfunded and don't have support for the leadership for doing their job.
REHMMary Anne Hitt, she's director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. Turning to you, Daniel Simmons, as Mary Anne said, the governor of West Virginia has taken a very strong stand against the EPA. He's denied there's any link between the accident and coal companies. How do you see it?
MR. DANIEL SIMMONSWell, this is a -- you know, this is not a coal issue. This is really a chemical safety issue, the way that I see it. And the reason I see it that way is because of this. First of all, this chemical can be used for, you know, other processes. For example, there's an interesting patent out there where using this chemical in air freshener. I don't like licorice, but, whatever. Then the -- you know, this coal that is washed with this chemical is used for metallurgic coal, at least according to National Geographic.
MR. DANIEL SIMMONSMetallurgic coal is coal that is used in the coking processing, that is used to smelt iron, that is used to make steel, so it's one step in that process. So I don't think you can stop by saying that this is a coal issue. This is a chemical safety issue. And chemicals are powerful. They make our lives better. They make our lives cleaner, but they must be treated with care. In this case, it is obvious that they were not treated with enough care.
MR. DANIEL SIMMONSI mean, one of the things that Mary Anne said that also really surprised me is that there had not been any inspections, you know, of this plant since 1991. And I find that, you know, truly amazing. Chemicals are powerful, but they must be treated with care. In this case, they weren't, and, you know, this company needs to pay the price for that.
REHMDaniel Horowitz, that's where your organization comes in. This chemical plant had not been investigated since 1991?
HOROWITZWell, that's the preliminary information that's out there from the state. But I wish I could say we were very surprised by that. This is a small operation. You have to bear in mind that agencies like federal OSHA focus on the workplaces that have the most worker injuries, slips, trips, falls, that sort of thing. They're not set up as an agency to have a lot of resources for chemical safety.
HOROWITZThey have a handful of people who are very dedicated to that but not nearly enough for the many thousands of these sites that are around the country. And if you look over toward EPA, a lot of their rules for tanks focus on preventing oil spills, but there are no rules necessarily for all these thousands of other chemicals that are out there for which we don't necessarily know what all the hazards are.
REHMYou know, I guess what concerns me is that the governor may be saying, well it's safe to drink in this zone. It's safe to bathe in this zone. You may not know for years whether the water you're drinking now after this chemical spill is safe. You may not know for years, Mary Anne.
HITTThere was a quote in the Charleston Gazette from a public event last night that has just stuck with me from a mother who said -- and I'll quote -- "I have a 1-year-old at home, and I don't want her in 20 years to not be able to have children due to these chemicals." And thinking about all the parents who are there raising little kids dealing with this water, taking care of sick elderly relatives dealing with this water, have been, you know, drinking it in the hours before the crisis not knowing what they've been exposed to.
HITTAnd I think it's very important to underscore that there are still a lot of questions about whether this supposedly safe level that's been set is really the right level. By all reports, it's kind of done on the back of an envelope, patching together the little bit of information as we've heard is out there, very little information whatsoever.
HITTAnd so I think even once the folks in West Virginia say the water is safe to drink, I think a lot of people out there are still going to have questions about whether or not the water's really safe. And it's hard to figure out where they're going to get those answers. So this is a crisis that's not yet over.
REHMDo you believe that there's any link between this accident and the coal companies?
HITTWell, I think trying to say that there's no relationship between this crisis and the coal industry is like saying the tobacco industry doesn't have anything to do with lung cancer. This chemical was there to process coal. The state's long history of not being able to enforce environmental regulations is very much tied to the coal industry. And the coal industry's going to carry a lot of weight in who's held accountable.
REHMMary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have an email from Bob in Texas. "How long had the chemical been leaking into Elk Creek before it was detected at these high levels," Joel Achenbach?
ACHENBACHSo it was Thursday morning when a lot of people around town began noticing this very powerful smell.
ACHENBACHThat was Thursday morning early on. The neighbors have smelled this before. I mean, this -- in fact, one possibility that I heard when I was there is that the reason the people in the plant who work there didn't say, oh my gosh, we have a spill, we have a leak, is that they smell the smell all the time right there at the plant.
ACHENBACHAnd maybe they didn't go on high alert. But you could smell it around town because it got in the water. So people were -- they were filling they're bathtubs. They were giving their babies baths. They were cooking with it. And they're saying, what is that smell, because it got in the water supply. So a couple of state workers, you know, just drove around and sniffed it out.
ACHENBACHI mean, they have trained noses, and they figured out pretty quickly it's probably coming from Freedom Industries. It's pretty obvious that just up river from the intake is this facility. It's not a huge facility, but it's also right there on the river. And there's about 12, 13 big tanks right along the river. And so they went there. And, according to the Gazette, what they found was one -- they found this pool of liquid.
ACHENBACHAnd someone at the facility had placed a cement -- one cinderblock and one 50-pound bag of some sort of safety absorbent material to try to block the leak, so a very, you know, quick little Band-Aid action. So the people at the plant knew that morning at some point that something -- that they had a leak. And they didn't report it right away. And this is something that I'm sure that will be the subject of attention from attorneys.
ACHENBACHYou know, who knew what, when? How did they react to it? How was the response? It then took a number of hours before the water company was -- it was late in the day. The water company issued the do-not-use order and told everyone, you know, don't bathe in it, don't drink it, don't do laundry with it. But by then, people had been drinking it all day and cooking with it. And so obviously people are rightfully alarmed and upset.
REHMHas anybody reported being injured either in terms of bathing in it or drinking of it as yet, Mary Anne?
HITTThere have been some hospital admissions. And my understanding is the state health authorities are not yet releasing numbers on which of those are definitively linked to this chemical versus maybe people who had some other illness and were worried about it. But there were over 100 hospital admissions in the immediate period after this of people who were exhibiting the symptoms and were worried they had been exposed to the chemical.
REHMJoel, you say that this whole event reminds you of the BP oil spill. How?
ACHENBACHWell, one of the things that struck me was that in the -- when you have an event like this, you have a response, sort of a unified response of all the officials get together from the state and the federal government, and they hold press conferences. And they tend, as they did with the BP spill, to start talking about how wonderful the response has been so far. The protocols have been followed.
ACHENBACHThe processes are being adhered to. The teamwork is magnificent. And there's a kind of self-congratulatory air at these things. That's just, you know, my take on it. We saw that with the BP oil spill. And what people want to hear is that it's over. They want to know, have you fixed it? Have you plugged the hole? Have you stopped the leak? When can I drink my water? They don't really want to hear that the inner agency cooperation is going so well.
REHMJoel Achenbach, science reporter for the Washington Post. He is the author of the book titled "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher." Short break. When we come back, time to open the phones. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Time to open the phones, your questions, comments on the chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia that's caused water contamination, leaving the water fit not even for bathing, much less for drinking. Some zones have been reopened, but even those people are regarding as suspect. Let's go to Chris in Johnson City, Tenn. You're on the air.
CHRISHello, Diane. Thank you very much for taking my call.
CHRISPrimarily, this is a general statement that businesses and corporations are going to do whatever is cheapest and most profitable. And it is up to federal or state officials to say, no, you have to do this to protect the public in this case.
CHRISThe mantra that regulations cost jobs is a myth and a scare tactic. Somebody has to design, build, and install whatever is needed to bring a facility into compliance of regulations. That's going to create jobs. In this case, if we have paid inspectors to go in there and check that tank, somebody would have had to go in there and fix it. And this also applies to the financial problems, too.
REHMAll right. Let's not get into the whole financial industry, but, Daniel Simmons, to you. Regulations and inspections, don't they, in the end, save rather than cost money?
SIMMONSThey can, but they need to be smart. They need to be rational. And one of the keys here is that businesses don't want to do the cheapest thing. Businesses really want to stay in business. Freedom Industries could be out of business after this, and that's reality. And that may be as it should be. Because the problem is we have to hold companies accountable.
SIMMONSI don't believe that there can be enough regulation. What we have to have is the corporations have to be responsible for their activities because that way they are responsible, even if you don't have an inspector on site. And that's critical. In this case, Freedom Industries could be going away because of this mistake.
REHMIndeed, the U.S. Attorney has opened up a case against Freedom Industries. Which law or laws have or might they have violated, Mary Anne?
HITTWell, one of the things that's challenging about this is we have our toxic chemical laws, we have the Clean Water Act, and I think all of us are still trying to piece together not only what does this chemical do, but which agencies were really the ones kind of on point.
HITTBut I think one of the things that's really important to remember is you can have the best regulations in the world on paper, but if they aren't enforced they might as well not exist. And when you had no inspectors on the site for over 20 years, clearly there's both the wrong regulations perhaps, but also the lack of will to enforce what is on the books.
REHMDo other states have such regulations for more frequent inspections?
HITTOne of the things that's tricky about all of this is is it is largely delegated to the state. And especially when it comes to water and coal pollution in particular, a lot of that is delegated to the states. And so some states you've got robust enforcement, well-funded agencies. Other states like West Virginia, they don't have the funding, and the leadership in the state has made it very clear that we don't want to push industry too far.
REHMI wonder, Daniel Horowitz, are you also going to be investigating the harm to aquatic life, as well as human life?
HOROWITZWell, we'll certainly look into that and try to document if there has been any harm to aquatic life. I do want to just jump in on another point and say certainly post-accident enforcement is important. But really what we have to do is get regulations on the books so that these are prevented. And that isn't just state inspectors going in and inspecting. It's really motivating companies to do their own regular inspections, repairs, whatever it takes, so the tanks hold their contents. And that's going to save a great deal of money for companies in the long run. Prevention definitely pays.
ACHENBACHI just have a question for you, Mr. Horowitz, while you're there. Will you merely investigate this one facility or will the people on the Chemical Safety Board look around, go upstream, downstream and see what else jumps out at you in that area, in Charleston, which is so heavily industrialized?
HOROWITZUnfortunately, I don't think we have enough boots to walk all the riverways, but what we may try to do is use some geographic information systems and try to map out where these kinds of terminals are relative to drinking water systems. We'll just have to see where the investigation takes us ultimately.
REHMAll right. To Jack in Chester, S.C. You're on the air.
JACKThank you for taking my call. In this age of sequestration and budget cutting and the like, environmental protection has seemed to take a backseat to a lot of different things. And I was just wondering if the panelists or considered a mechanism to protect the waterways and protect the air in the absence of existing mechanisms and funding that it would take to enforce the laws that are already on the books.
REHMThere are some within Congress who'd like to see the EPA completely disappear, Mary Anne.
HITTIndeed. And there is no substitute for having a robust enforcement effort out there. Your environmental cops on the beat, making sure that our air is safe to breathe and our water is safe to drink. And I think one of the things that you've seen in these recent budget battles is a lot of focus on whittling away the EPA's budget, so they don't have as many inspectors.
HITTThey can't do as much enforcement. And that means you can track that back to the number of sites that won't get inspected, the number of spills that might occur because those inspections didn't happen. So EPA and the folks who protect our clear air and clean water are very much under attack right now.
REHMWhat do you think could have been done to prevent this before it happened?
HITTWell, had this been inspected regularly, especially considering that it's right upstream from the biggest drinking water supply in West Virginia you would think that a regular inspection would have caught that these tanks were failing. But ultimately we need immediate relief for this area. We need to hold the people accountable who are responsible, but the big task before us is, how do we make sure this doesn't happen again? And that requires states like West Virginia to actually work as partners with the EPA, rather than seeing them as an adversary.
ACHENBACHJust a quick point of fact that according to Mike Dorsey, who's with the West Virginia State Department of Environmental Protection, he was told by the president of Freedom Industries the company had set aside a million dollars in escrow to upgrade the containment facility. So the company knew that this was a subpar containment facility, and they were going to do it. And they just hadn't gotten around to it yet.
ACHENBACHAnd so getting to something that Dan said earlier, you know, how do you make the private sector pick up its game a little bit there, at the very least? And maybe a more robust enforcement and having people breathing down their neck a little bit would make them go ahead and upgrade this old cinderblock wall that is the backup plan to these old rust belt tanks.
SIMMONSOh, and that is something that I agree with. I mean, it is crazy that the water, for example, the people that run the water plant didn't look what was immediately upstream from them and talk to Freedom Industries and whatever else there is. I mean, that is a serious problem. I mean, drinking water is one of the most basic things that come into our house and that it has to be healthy.
REHMBut what are you saying, that the location should have been questioned to begin with?
SIMMONSI'm saying that the people that run the water plant need to be a little bit more holistic. That the other inspectors that work for West Virginia need to be holistic and looking at what situation is because we can't…
REHMBut holistic is one thing. When an industry is coming in upstream of a water supply, shouldn't somebody have said, wait a minute, does this belong here? Mary Anne?
SIMMONSBut that was -- just one quick…
SIMMONSI mean, that was 70 years ago. That was in the '40s, right, that this plant was built.
ACHENBACHI think the sequence was that the plant was already there. And then they created the intake to the water system. But the point is still valid, which is that the water company and the state inspectors and the public officials, all the way up to the governor, could have said, this is a…
REHMDoes not make sense.
ACHENBACHWell, this is not a robust engineering design.
HITTAnd I think it's, again, important to note that here you have this one acute spill. There is a growing stack of health studies that show people who live around coal mines in West Virginia are experiencing higher rates of birth defects, of little kids getting sick, of cancer, depression even. So there are a lot of serious health consequences associated with how we mine and burn and process the waste from coal.
HITTAnd, yes, this is a very serious incident, and this tank was in the wrong place. But there are a whole lot of people there -- not just in Appalachia, but all around the country who are being exposed to chemicals and water pollution and air pollution that they have a whole lot of questions about. And, again, maybe this disaster will help pull the curtain back on that, will be a wakeup call to take a closer look at this, at long last.
REHMAll right. To Judith in La Porte, Texas. You're on the air.
JUDITHOh, thank you, Diane. Can you imagine that many people having to be afraid to wash their newborn babies or all of the different inconveniences of this from being afraid to touch the water? It's more than a disaster, and I hope that you're going to -- you're the perfect person to do a follow-up on this possibly. I blame Mr. Horowitz's agency for the almost ridiculous sense of surprise. It's no surprise if you read his autobiography people would really be amazed at what he probably has to put up with.
JUDITHThe last thing I wanted to say is that there were some books written in the '40s by Sen. William Ambruster. It was called "Treason's Peace." And there was another book written called, "Lowdown Dirty Decade." And it was about how the FDA was in cahoots with the chemical industry post-war. We weren't supposed to be dealing with the Nazis, and it was their chemicals.
REHMAll right. I'm going to stop you right there. This whole question of examining chemicals very, very carefully before they are allowed into the marketplace is something that you, Daniel Horowitz, I would think, would be very concerned about.
HOROWITZWell, we are certainly concerned about it. And this accident really brings that question into focus. There is a law called TOSCA. It's been on the agenda for reform for many years. All sides to the debate agree it needs to be improved and it's now before Congress. And so that may help us to get more testing on the chemicals that are out there. I did want to add one brief point, and that is that Europe faced a crisis very much like this in 1986 when there was a fire at a plant in Switzerland. It actually colored the Rhine River red for a period.
HOROWITZAnd all the drinking water and the fish downstream through many countries were threatened. Europe responded by a rather radical change to its regulatory system for chemical plants and really put the burden of proof onto the plants to show that they are safe and that they're following the best practices, rather than putting the burden onto government inspectors to prove that they are dangerous. It's called the Safety Case System, and it's something that we believe needs to be looked at in this country as well, based on the accidents that we've been seeing in recent years.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Mary Anne?
HITTYou know one of the things that I've been thinking about in the wake of this disaster -- the caller spoke about the Chemical Safety Board and sort of their responsibility here. The EPA has not had a head of their Office of Water for 2 1/2 years. The person that was nominated to head the EPA's federal Office of Water has been put on hold for 2 1/2 years. So they've had an acting administrator that whole time from an anonymous -- a secret hold by someone Congress who won't let the nomination go forward.
REHMA secret hold?
HITTIndeed. And so we have either tied these agencies' hands, we haven't given them the resources that they've needed or, again, in the case of a state like West Virginia, you have a governor who's openly hostile to the agency and doesn't really create a climate where you can partner, get ahead of these problems and solve them. But instead it makes you wonder how many more ticking time bombs like this are out there, not just in West Virginia and not just in Appalachia but all around the country.
ACHENBACHOne thing that Mr. Horowitz said earlier that's stuck in my head is that this is like an experiment in which you learn about the toxicity or the effects of a chemical by putting it into the water supply and seeing how it affects thousands and thousands of people. It reminds me a little bit of the way people find out if they have lead in their house, is that the pediatrician tells them that the child has too much lead in his or her blood. And so, you know, live humans are not the best tool or instrument for detecting or measuring the toxicity of a chemical, I would say.
SIMMONSAnd one thing that I will add to that is that this will hopefully be a wakeup call for many of the industries in West Virginia to be much more serious about their use of chemicals and how they handle them so that, for example, if there is another situation like there was with Freedom Industries where they had a million dollars sitting in escrow, ready to get to work making that a real containment system, a containment system that would contain the chemicals, that they will put that money to work, and they will improve their containment so this doesn't happen again.
SIMMONSI mean, that is one of the most important takeaways. Those things need to start happening now so that we don't have this happen in the future. Chemicals are great. They make our life so much better, but they have to be treated with caution. They have to be treated with care. And they have to be handled properly.
REHMDaniel Simmons, Joel Achenbach, Mary Anne Hitt, and Daniel Horowitz. You know, I've heard that term, wakeup call, so many times, in regard to Boston, in regard to Newtown, in regard so many other places, and nothing seems to change. Let's hope something changes here. Thank you all so much.
HITTOh, thank you. It's been a pleasure.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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