The West Virginia Chemical Leak and the Washington Mudslide: Politics, Regulations and Public Safety

MS. DIANE REHM

10:06:54
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Yesterday, the death toll from a devastating mudslide in Washington State rose to 33. While some blame heavy rains for the massive slide, environmental advocates point to extensive logging in the area as the cause. And three months after a chemical spill in the West Virginia's Elk River, thousands of residents still won't drink the water.

MS. DIANE REHM

10:07:21
Joining me in the studio to talk about events in Washington State and West Virginia, and the intersection of politics and environmental regulations in both, James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine and Evan Osnos of The New Yorker magazine. Joining us a bit later from a studio in Seattle, Wash., John Ryan of KUOW.

MS. DIANE REHM

10:07:47
I'm sure many of you will have comments and questions. I invite you to be part of the program. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Jim Fallows, Evan Osnos, welcome.

MR. JAMES FALLOWS

10:08:10
Thank you very much, Diane.

MR. EVAN OSNOS

10:08:11
Thanks, Diane.

REHM

10:08:12
Good to have you both here. Evan Osnos, you've just finished a new book about China. What turned you toward what's happening in West Virginia?

OSNOS

10:08:24
Well, in some sense, the China experience primed me to be interested in these subjects, particularly the intersection of politics and pollution. China, after all, is a place that is contending with enormous environmental trouble. So over the last eight years that I've been living there, I've thought a lot about the way that environmental troubles can shine a light on the way a government functions.

OSNOS

10:08:46
I've always had an interest in West Virginia. It was the first place that I worked when I got out of college. I worked at a newspaper there in Clarksburg. And ever since then, I've been conscious of and thinking about the way in which that state, which is in its own way blessed with enormous natural resources, has also contended with enormous struggles over the years about how those resources are used, how -- who benefits, who bears the costs.

OSNOS

10:09:10
And when this chemical spill happened in January, it was just so clearly an example of an opportunity to talk about how it is that West Virginia has tried to protect itself and also how it is going about this long and unending process of trying to lift itself out of poverty.

REHM

10:09:29
So you went -- you moved back here to D.C. You were reading about the chemical leak. You were struck by, I gather, similarities between what happens in China and what happened here in West Virginia.

OSNOS

10:09:47
Yeah. I'll tell you, in West Virginia, this was a case in which politics has really transformed the basic functions of government, down to things as basic as the delivery of tap water. And, you know, oftentimes we have these abstract debates in America about the role of government and about the role of regulation.

OSNOS

10:10:07
And what we saw in West Virginia was a case where it was actually quite literal, where, over the last 10 or 15 years, there has been a growing pro-business and limited government movement in the state, particularly among its elected officials. And they have systematically transformed the ways in which departments in the government can do their work.

OSNOS

10:10:25
For instance, the Department of Environmental Protection, for instance, has been told over the course of the last several years that it should issue fewer violations and it should try to promote what's known as compliance assistance to encourage companies to do better, rather than fining them for breaking the law.

OSNOS

10:10:42
It's also had a -- it's had budget cuts. It has -- it actually -- it's systematically -- its functions have been reduced to the point that when the federal government went in and looked at West Virginia and said, how is it doing, they concluded that its regulatory functions have become so lax that they are no longer a deterrent to violations, even when those violations are what are described as willful and blatant violations.

REHM

10:11:09
Interesting to me that you've got 55 counties in 2012 that voted against President Obama, yet you have two Democratic senators in the state. But you say the state has really moved very conservatively.

OSNOS

10:11:36
Yeah. There's an important context here, which is the political evolution of the state. You know, going back to FDR, West Virginia has been a reliable Democratic stronghold. In many ways, there are people all over the state of West Virginia today who credit Roosevelt with extending aid programs into the mountains. And for decades, the federal government was really seen as a partner to the people of West Virginia. They thought of it as a protector would help them against companies that could be abusive, for instance, in worker conditions or in environmental protections.

OSNOS

10:12:06
But over the course of the last 15 years, as the coal industry has begun to decline economically in the state, just in terms of the sheer number of jobs that it provides, it's declined substantially from a high of about 125,000 jobs in the late 1940s down to really only about one-fifth of that today. And as it has declined, it has organized politically. And it now talks about the Obama Administration's war on coal, as it describes it, and it says that it is up to the people of West Virginia to defend what they have left, to defend their way of life.

OSNOS

10:12:41
So what you've seen is this really interesting change in which -- what had been an economic debate, an economic discussion about the proper role of coal and the way it should be mined and the way that you should defend the rivers and the streams in the state of West Virginia has become a cultural debate, a political debate about who we are as a state and what we stand for. And so people who really have very little to protect, they feel very vulnerable. And it's one of the reasons why they have backed candidates who say that, above all, they will protect the coal industry against...

REHM

10:13:11
Hmm.

OSNOS

10:13:12
...the -- what they perceive as the assault from the federal government. And that has aided Republican candidates and conservative Democrats. So it's important to point out that this is a state in which you have both U.S. senators are Democrats though we may be headed for a change. The senior Sen. Jay Rockefeller is not running for re-election. And the frontrunner in that race is a Republican. And in the state level, at the state legislature level, you have, at the moment, the House of Delegates and the State Senate are both in Democratic hands. But they are also both close to the point of transitioning.

REHM

10:13:45
Evan Osnos, he is staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. His most recent piece is titled "Chemical Valley: The Coal Industry, The Politicians, and The Big Spill." It appears in the April 7 issue. Jim Fallows, your first reaction to Evan's piece, you wrote your first book on what was going on in West Virginia.

FALLOWS

10:14:14
Yes. Evan's piece is a wonderful strong piece. And, as readers would have gathered from listening to him, he pulls together all these different strands of technology, of culture, of politics, and the shifts of regional economic growth and all the rest in the United States. I came at this a somewhat different direction from Evan. He was saying he came back, having seen the pollution which we both saw during our years together in China, to see the analogs to that and the United States.

FALLOWS

10:14:38
As somebody who is a friend of Evan's but a generation older, a contemporary of his father, Peter, as you are, too, Diane, it -- I went to China with this American model actually in mind. As you say, the very first book I wrote, which was on a Ralph Nader project, called "The Water Lords" back in the 1970s, when I was just out of college, was about the similar situation in Georgia in those days.

FALLOWS

10:14:58
In Savannah, which we now think of as the epitome of high style but was then a sort of paper mill town, in this little place called St. Marys, Ga., which was, in a way, everything that we're seeing now in West Virginia, one saw then a paper mill where the pollution was so thick, there was foam six or eight-feet high on the water, the Spanish moss was blasted off the trees, and how that changed itself.

FALLOWS

10:15:20
What's interesting to me is we're sort of going through, again, the same conditions that gave rise to the movement of the original sort of environmental push 40 years ago -- actually, the second environmental push, the first having been with Teddy Roosevelt and the rest a hundred-plus years ago -- where you have the sense that the environment is both highly local and highly national and global.

FALLOWS

10:15:41
Emissions anywhere affect the global environment. But the local burden of pollution in drinking water, in things that you breathe, and of political imbalance, that is, I think, the battle to be addressed again. And I think Evan shows how things that happened from essentially the Depression era through the late '60s, where companies were able to go to vulnerable places and sort of buy up the politicians and win the local people, saying, you know, you may not like the smell, but it's the smell of money. We're seeing that once more. And, really, the only offset to that is some sort of national standard.

REHM

10:16:14
Do you think that the reactions would have been similar had this happened in a major county in California?

FALLOWS

10:16:25
Imagine if 300,000 people in D.C., in Montgomery County, or in New York in Westchester County, or L.A. County, or Santa Barbara, or San Francisco were having poisonous drinking water. This would have pushed Malaysian 370 off CNN. You know, it would be the only thing anybody was talking about. This is the reality of the news business.

FALLOWS

10:16:44
It is big city-centric and East Coast-centric. But the reality of life is these people in West Virginia now, like the people in Southern Georgia 40 years ago, are living with this -- something that shouldn't be acceptable in modern America. We see it all the time in China, but this is -- it shouldn't be what people in modern America have to deal with.

REHM

10:17:04
Now, you mentioned Jay Rockefeller, Evan, the fact that he's not running again. He said on NPR, if he were there in West Virginia, he would not be drinking the water. Apparently less than 5 percent of those residents of West Virginia are drinking the water. How can this be?

OSNOS

10:17:32
I have to tell you, that's one of the most striking observations that I had while I was there. The thing that struck me most was how little confidence the public now has in their own elected officials. When I talk to people not just in the city of Charleston that was immediately affected by the spill but even people outside of that immediate area, people whose drinking water comes from a different source, they've been, frankly, so unimpressed with the public response, with the official response to the spill, that they've come away feeling that some of the most basic things they expect from government, like public health advice, like reliable water that won't harm their children, they don't feel they can count on it. So it's -- there's been a sort of pullback.

REHM

10:18:11
Evan Osnos, he's staff writer for The New Yorker. He has a new book coming out titled "Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China." And we'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk more, take your calls. I look forward to hearing from you.

REHM

10:20:01
And as we talk about the merge of politics and policy, especially in relation to environmental issues, joining us now from his office in Charleston, W.Va. is Dr. Rahul Gupta. He's health officer, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department in West Virginia. Good morning to you, Dr. Gupta. Thanks for joining us.

DR. RAHUL GUPTA

10:20:33
Good morning, Diane. And thanks for having me.

REHM

10:20:35
I know that the tap water testing is over. The water has been declared safe. Do you agree with those findings?

GUPTA

10:20:46
Well, we did have independent researchers and scientists do their assessments. And whether we look at the early estimates provided to us by the CDC which was one-thousand parts per billion or the much more stringent recent estimates from the tap scientists of 120 parts per billion, we do believe that the definition of safe seems to be have (sic) met.

REHM

10:21:12
What about the Centers for Disease Control and Protection? Aren't they looking at some hospital reports from patients back in January?

GUPTA

10:21:25
Yes. And that's one that we are still awaiting. It's been over two-and-a-half months, and we're still awaiting those reports. However, we ourselves did conduct some independent assessments of the outpatient reports. And we have found our data and that people did have symptoms half as many after the water was allowed to be safe or immediately after the flushing was allowed. Most of those symptoms included skin rashes, irritations, eye irritations, and nausea, vomiting, and headaches. And those were some symptoms that have since long dissipated.

REHM

10:22:06
Dr. Gupta, are you drinking the water?

GUPTA

10:22:09
Yes, I am now. And that is something that eventually we believe that the chemical is very slowly but it is getting out of our system.

REHM

10:22:20
Does it still smell, taste like licorice?

GUPTA

10:22:26
So our complaints of smell have gone as well as the tastes have gone progressively down since Jan. 9 to the level that we're having almost no complaints at this time, of either the smell or the taste.

REHM

10:22:40
Now, do I understand correctly that 5 percent or less of people in West Virginia are drinking tap water?

GUPTA

10:22:53
So we kept some survey data, and we maintained we were the only ones to maintain this date. And as of March 1, we did have those numbers, including that up to 20 percent were not using the water for any purpose. However, in the last month, we believe significant progress has been made, and we have a lot many more people now drinking the water. Of course, we still have a certain number of people who still do not have full trust in their water. We also have a number of people who have historically just stick to the bottle water. So we have different populations, but we do believe a lot more people today are drinking the water than they did even a few weeks ago.

REHM

10:23:35
I know that Gov. Tomlin just signed a bill to prevent future spills like the one that happened in January. Do you believe it goes far enough?

GUPTA

10:23:49
We believe that there are provisions in there that if they are not subject to special interest groups while the rule-making is done that it can be a very firm and good rules that can be enacted and save and prevent such impacts from happening again. Now, of course, as we say, the devil is in the details.

REHM

10:24:15
Well, how can they not be subject to private interest groups?

GUPTA

10:24:21
Well, one of the provisions that we have wanted to do was -- or ask for was to make sure that local governments -- you know, our believe is that the best way to address some of the issues that we have in discussing even with your previous guest is to have a very strong check and balance between federal, state and local governments. And we would like to see that more of the local government input is placed when these rules are being formed that will serve the counterbalance to these special industry interests.

REHM

10:24:55
But I gather there's no funding attached to the law?

GUPTA

10:25:02
There is funding, but it is not attached to a particular part, which is the long term studies. And that is perhaps one of the difficult parts of allowing our population to heal. Because we found out as late as in the third or fourth week of March that the water company's water that was coming in for the intake to be treated did not have significant numbers of the chemical, but the very small amounts of chemicals when it left the water treatment plant to go into people's homes.

GUPTA

10:25:37
So with very low levels of contaminants still in the water, the issue of long-term exposure comes in. And that's one of the reasons that we're asking for long-term human impact studies. And without the funding, we know it is almost a nonstarter. So that's a big challenge we're having currently because, on top of the tragedy that has occurred, it will be really bad if there is no funding available to monitor the help of these 300,000 West Virginians for the next several years.

REHM

10:26:15
So what about the tanks near the drinking water supplies? What's happened to them?

GUPTA

10:26:24
So what we understand is most of the chemical has been taken out from the tanks. They're pretty much almost empty. There will be a bidding process to remove those tanks. We have to be very careful in ensuring, when the tanks are removed, there is no more material that leaches out into the river, which is the source of the intake for water treatment plant. And that's where the situation is right now. So those tanks are pretty much empty tanks that sit waiting to be removed at this time.

REHM

10:26:56
Dr. Gupta, as the senior health officer there in the county where all this has happened, I realize you have to be very careful about your words, very thoughtful about what you say. How concerned are you for the future of the water supply in West Virginia?

GUPTA

10:27:24
I'm moderately concerned. And a lot of that concern I believe is not unique to West Virginia. I think, as a nation that is a concern that it can happen anywhere. We have learned a couple of important things. One is that we believe that, as a nation or as a state, we are not prepared to respond to such large-scale drinking water contamination events. And that's something that I think as a nation we need to work together to improve upon.

GUPTA

10:27:55
Second, I do believe that we have had challenges in learning the impact, the human and economic impact from this event. We're currently working on research studies, but we really need to look at this from a scientific perspective. It's important that science drives policy and decision making, not the other way around.

REHM

10:28:18
And would you argue that it has been the other way around?

GUPTA

10:28:24
Well, some days (unintelligible) surely felt like that for a lot of our citizens and a lot of our residents of the 300,000 people. And that's one of the reasons that people were -- have been very upset because something as very simple but as vital as water and being contaminated is something that should not be acceptable in this country.

REHM

10:28:47
Final question, Dr. Gupta. How much money do you think this spill has cost West Virginia?

GUPTA

10:28:59
So there were estimates with the businesses shut down initially that it was costing us $19 million a day. Subsequent estimates have somewhere about 70 to $100 million. We believe those are under estimates. We believe the impact of individuals and to the households has properly not addressed in those estimates, so we believe the costs just in dollars are a lot more than have been estimated. And in the human impact, in the confidence-building sense, it's probably much more.

REHM

10:29:36
Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer, executive director of the Charleston Health Department in West Virginia. Thank you so much for joining us, sir.

GUPTA

10:29:48
Thank you for having me.

REHM

10:29:49
And, Jim Fallows, you wanted to comment.

FALLOWS

10:29:52
Yes. I wanted to try to make a larger scale political point connecting what we just heard from Dr. Gupta in West Virginia with China, which we mentioned, because it's the outlier case in the world right now of how environmental problems can affect politics with the U.S. as a whole. In China, I've argued -- and I think that Evan has too -- the main political threat to the regime continuing there is not the normal protests we read about all the time, but rather environmental destruction.

FALLOWS

10:30:17
Because if people start feeling that they can't trust the air they breathe, the water their children drink, the food their families eat, just anything else about their lives, then they wonder about the regime as a whole. I think in West Virginia, Dr. Gupta was saying people have lost trust in whether this most basic form of life sustenance is reliable.

FALLOWS

10:30:37
In the past in the United States, it has been these moments when people lost faith in the underlying protection of their living environment, that there have been environmental movements back in the late '60s and early '70s led ironically by Richard Nixon -- the Administration of Richard Nixon. There was an environmental movement because of fears about diseases you couldn't control, things coming into your household that you had no idea of them. And if, as Dr. Gupta says, there are reasons to worry about this same pattern more generally, if the U.S. neglect of infrastructure, which is so notable, is going to show up in this way, then this could be a political issue we're...

REHM

10:31:14
All right. And we've been talking about the chemical leak in West Virginia, the role of politics in environmental regulations there. Now we'd like to turn to the devastating mudslide that occurred in Oso, Wash. March 22, dozens of people killed. There are questions about the role that timber logging might have played in causing that massive slide. Joining us now from Seattle, Wash. is John Ryan. He's an investigative reporter at member station KUOW. John, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

MR. JOHN RYAN

10:32:01
Thank you, Diane.

REHM

10:32:03
Yesterday we learned there are now 33 people who died in the mudslide. What's the latest on the ongoing effort to locate those missing people?

RYAN

10:32:16
Yeah, they'll be updating that number dead again in just a few minutes here, and there's still about a dozen people believed to be missing. And they are continuing to dig through all that huge pile of debris and mud to try to find more people. And they say it's unlikely they'll ever find all the victims because the debris is just so immense in places. It's 75-feet deep.

REHM

10:32:38
Describe the area that the landslide actually covered, John.

RYAN

10:32:46
It's a river valley, the north fork Stillaguamish River, a rural area about 50, 60 miles northeast of Seattle. And it's an area that was scoured by glaciers back in the last ice age. And they left behind kind of a recipe for landslides to happen, both naturally and perhaps if humans add some factors it might increase that risk. And so there's these bluffs basically high above the river. And Saturday, a couple weeks ago, one of these just came down and covered an area about a mile wide. About a mile of a highway was wiped out. This huge massive mud and trees and rocks came down.

RYAN

10:33:20
The volume, to make it something visual, was about three times as big as Safeco Field. That's the stadium that the Seattle Mariners play in, so about three times as big as it would take to fill that up. So it's a gigantic amount of mud. And, as you mentioned, you know, 33 people lost their lives that day.

REHM

10:33:35
Do we know yet with any certainty what caused this mudslide?

RYAN

10:33:42
It's almost certainly a very complex mix of factors and it's too early to say what may or may not have been in that mix. But there's really no doubt that water is the fuel for landslides in this part of the country. Landslides are fairly common. You know, every winter here our train lines, north and south of Seattle, get shut down for days at a time when mudslides cross the tracks.

RYAN

10:34:02
And in this area, one of the theories that is coming up is that water might have been increased coming through this area because of logging in the zone around it. This was a deep landslide, not like a typical landslide where maybe just the mud at the surface lifts. This was hundreds of feet down, and the connection with water is that in certain areas, rainwater comes down, gets down to this later between the kind of loose soils that the glaciers left and a clay layer beneath that. And it lubricates that slipping layer. And that's where this slide broke apart.

RYAN

10:34:34
So if -- and we also know that in this part of the world, trees, forests keep a lot of water out of the ground. A big old Douglas fir tree can keep about a third of the rain that falls on it from ever hitting the ground. And if you remove those trees, you can let more water get underground, so logging is a possible factor. It's a known factor in some past landslides in the area. And another factor that the Department of Natural Resources has been pointing to -- they're the folks that oversee logging in the state -- they say that the river undercutting the bank at the base of this slide, that also destabilized the whole slide.

REHM

10:35:07
There are also reports that the Department of Natural Resources there in Washington approved clear-cut logging in the area based on outdated ecological data. Is that true?

RYAN

10:35:27
It is. I found those old documents for a clear-cut that they approved in 2004 right on the boundary of what they call the groundwater recharge zone, which is kind of a protected area that the state had designated to avoid worsening the cause of -- the risk of landslides. Because this was a well-known landslide spot and they were trying to take measures to avoid worsening that risk.

RYAN

10:35:50
And so, instead of using a 1997 paper that showed that this clear-cut that they approved was squarely within this groundwater recharge area, the groundwater danger zone, if you will, they used older information that -- so that that groundwater -- sorry, that clear-cut was just outside, just on the edge of this area but not within it. So if they had used a more recent, the best available science, this fairly small clear-cut might not have been approved.

REHM

10:36:18
And hasn't -- as you said, hasn't each one of those logging clear-cuts been followed by a major landslide?

RYAN

10:36:32
Right. In recent decades, there's been a lot of logging in this area. It's private timber land. It's used for logging, much of it. And starting as far back as the '40s, when there was cutting in the '40s, there were some big landslides within a few years after that, again, in the '50s and again in the '80s. And so there is kind of a pattern in this spot.

RYAN

10:36:52
I should add though that this recent clear-cut, as I mentioned, is quite small compared to those older ones. It's only seven-and-a-half acres. So there's really no question that water fuels landslides and that removing vegetation can increase water. But there is a big question of whether this small cut could've had much of an impact. And let me just add, on the water, I should say that the area got about three times its normal rainfall for the month of March.

REHM

10:37:13
Right.

RYAN

10:37:14
So that's definitely a big factor. And with climate scientists predicting for Washington State heavier rainfall in our wet months, that's something that is worrisome for future landslides.

REHM

10:37:25
John Ryan, he's with Seattle station KUOW. Short break here. When we come back, we'll talk further and take your calls.

REHM

10:39:58
And in this hour, we're talking about what's happened certainly in Charleston, W.Va. with dangerous chemicals entering the water, relating that in some way to the landslide that has just occurred, taking the lives thus far of 33 individuals. Evan Osnos, do you see a relationship between the two tragedies?

OSNOS

10:40:29
Well, one of the things that is noticeable is that in both cases after these terrible events -- and I should say I'm cautious to overdraw the comparison because, after all, in Washington State, there's been a loss of life of 33 people.

REHM

10:40:42
Absolutely.

OSNOS

10:40:43
And in West Virginia, mercifully, that's not been the case. What you saw in Washington was that, afterwards, local emergency planning officials said, for instance, this was an unforeseeable event. As you dig in, you discover there were these warnings on record of a potentially catastrophic failure in that area, and in West Virginia, likewise. We have seen that what was described in the immediate moments afterwards as an unforeseeable disaster.

OSNOS

10:41:07
A case of a tank that rusted through before anyone could think to do anything about it. In fact, there had been, for years, warnings that in obvious ways the State Department of Environmental Regulation was not able to perform its functions to the best degree that it wanted to, that its professional inspectors wanted to. So what you see is that in some cases, the professionals who are involved in this process, the inspectors on the ground, oftentimes they're aware of the risks. And they're trying to get the message through and the bureaucracy can make it difficult.

REHM

10:41:40
And what about the clear-cutting in Seattle?

OSNOS

10:41:44
Well, it's not a subject that I've paid special attention to. But what I am -- and it's noticeable that the language that we hear coming out of public officials in both cases is familiar.

REHM

10:41:54
Jim Fallows?

MR. JIM FALLOWS

10:41:56
Yes. And I guess this is a perhaps uncorrectable trait of the news media and of human nature and the political system, that once something goes wrong we all say, oh, there are these 16 warning signs. Why did no one pay attention? But while there are warning signs of other things, for example, everybody who's looked at America's bridges and sewer systems say these things are about to collapse. And so when one does, we'll look back at these.

MR. JIM FALLOWS

10:42:16
The inspection budget for almost every part of our environmental infrastructure system is being reduced -- not even to talk about climate warnings that are going on. So there are adequate warnings. If there were only some way we could pay attention to them before the disaster.

REHM

10:42:28
And here is Chris in North Carolina who's paying good attention. He says, "Our legislators defunded geologists from mapping landslides in North Carolina. This was due to objection from real estate developers and agents, and homebuilders. Then, sadly, politicians obliged. Horrible."

OSNOS

10:42:57
I should say, North Carolina has been the site of a conversation, a very public debate, about exactly this issue recently, which is how has a movement to really reduce the function of the environmental regulatory system, how has that impacted people's lives. They suffered recently an enormous coal-ash spill, the third largest in American history. And there is now a criminal investigation -- I should say a federal investigation going on to look at the way in which the environmental regulators and their dealings with the coal industry.

REHM

10:43:25
Jim?

FALLOWS

10:43:26
There's an important additional political point I think, which is that the tensions of local interests and special interests, that's a timeless matter. Every government in history has had those things. There's a shift in our party politics. It's significant that the first big environmental movement in the United States during the Teddy Roosevelt era was led by progressive Republicans.

FALLOWS

10:43:45
The second one, in the late '60s and '70s, happened at least with the acquiescence of Richard Nixon's administration. The Republican Party generally has cast itself as disbelieving science and environmental concerns of every sort. Until that changes it makes it more difficult to deal with this next wave.

REHM

10:44:00
And joining us now from Denver, Colo., Randall Jibson. He's a research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, an agency of the U.S. Department of Interior. Randall Jibson, I know you've been studying landslides your whole career. What do you believe caused this one?

MR. RANDALL JIBSON

10:44:28
I don't think there's any need to look for anything particularly exotic with this landslide. The abnormally high rainfall, about twice what would happen on average, is more than enough to explain this. We would have been surprised with that kind of rainfall had there not been landslides in this area. I think what was surprising was the size of this landslide and more particularly how fast and how far it traveled. That truly was abnormal.

REHM

10:45:01
But how about the history of clear-cut logging on this hill? How can you be absolutely sure this wasn't the underlying cause?

JIBSON

10:45:13
I'm not sure anyone will be able to prove or disprove an effective clear-cut logging. What we do know from long experience is that deep landslides don't really feel the effects of surface vegetation. Surface vegetation, tree cover, has a very strong effect on stabilizing slopes from shallow landslides, landslides that are a few feet, a few tens of feet deep. This was a landslide that was some hundreds of feet deep. And landslides of that type tend to not really feel the effects of surface vegetation.

JIBSON

10:45:51
Also, the presence or the absence of vegetation on the surface has a more complex effect than you might think. The removal of the tree cover actually promotes more surface runoff, which can reduce the amount of water that infiltrates. And so it's a little more complicated than you might at first think.

REHM

10:46:13
But what do you make of the allegation that the Department of Natural Resources used data for clear-cutting from 10 years ago?

JIBSON

10:46:29
I'm not familiar with the specific study from the Department of Natural Resources. And I'm not sure how much conditions would change over a decade. The rather small area of a very few acres, I think, would likely have very little, if any, effect on a landslide of this size.

REHM

10:46:51
Would you, if you were in a position to say yay or nay, have recommended that people build homes on that area?

JIBSON

10:47:06
Well, we joke in my agency that that's above our pay grade. We try to do the best science we can and the acceptance of a certain level of risk is really a political policy decision. What I will say is this landslide traveled about three times as far as we would have expected a typical landslide in this area to have traveled. So I'm not sure it was easily foreseeable that the landslide would have moved as far as it did.

JIBSON

10:47:39
There's no surprise whatsoever that a landslide happened in this area. But it is a little surprising that it went as far as it did. And so I think it would have been difficult to have predicted just how this landslide behaved.

REHM

10:47:53
Evan, do you want to comment?

OSNOS

10:47:55
Well, one of the things that is very clear from this is the importance of elected officials. Because I think, as Randall said, oftentimes there are political decisions that are made that really set the terms of what professional -- of what the civil servants can do and how they do their jobs. A lot of these decisions are (unintelligible) there's judgment to be made about how far you go and where do you draw the line.

OSNOS

10:48:17
So oftentimes it drives home for me how important it is that when we're electing the people that we are that we really understand what they think about science and about the way that it should be used and the way that it should protect the public good.

REHM

10:48:30
Jim?

FALLOWS

10:48:31
Yes. I agree with that. And just for people who -- listeners who might not have seen this part of Washington state. I've lived in Seattle for a couple of years and used to actually fly my airplane through this valley. It's extremely steep, mountainous area with these villages are down right at the very base of it. It's like you might see in some movie of the Swiss Alps or the mountains of Sichuan in Western China, which were also knocked down essentially by the horrible earthquake in 2008.

FALLOWS

10:48:56
So as with parts of low-lying Florida that are so vulnerable to hurricanes, this is a part of the world that is vulnerable to landslides. And again, as a political decision of where people are encouraged or allowed to live.

REHM

10:49:08
Randall Jibson, thanks so much for joining us.

JIBSON

10:49:13
You're welcome.

REHM

10:49:14
All right. I'm going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850, to Harrisburg, Penn. Hi, Craig. You're on the air.

CRAIG

10:49:27
Good morning.

REHM

10:49:28
Hi.

CRAIG

10:49:30
I wanted to point out, too, that just in this past month there was an 8.1 earthquake in Chile. And very few fatalities. And I think that should be a headline, but of course it isn't because there were so few fatalities. And what apparently made the difference there was that they had very strict government regulation on buildings, the building codes. And these are very unsexy topics, but they can save hundreds of thousands of lives.

REHM

10:49:58
Absolutely. Jim?

FALLOWS

10:49:58
Yes. And I grew up in Southern California, right on the San Andreas Fault. And the elementary school I went to was razed because it didn't meet earthquake standards, and now most people think that if an earthquake, like the one that hit China and killed almost 100,000 people -- you know, 90,000, 100,000 people in 2008 -- if that hit California, it would kill only a fraction of that number because of regulations and safety standards and all the rest. So it does make a big difference.

REHM

10:50:23
All right. To Robert, in Lewisburg, W.Va. Hi, you're on the air.

ROBERT

10:50:29
Hi. Thank you, Diane. I love your show, and I appreciate all the work you do. But I want to take issue with the broad brush by which you're characterizing West Virginia in phrases like, only 5 percent of the people in West Virginia are drinking the water. It's extremely important to realize that although 300,000 people affected by the spill are a lot of people, that that's still less than one-sixth of the population of the state.

ROBERT

10:51:05
And it is -- for example, the town of Lewisburg, near where I live, takes it water from the Greenbrier River, which is probably the cleanest river in the East. It gets 80 percent of its watershed is out of national forests, and there's no industry upstream. And that's the case for most of the cities in the state.

REHM

10:51:33
Robert, I'm so glad you pointed that out. You're absolutely right. I should be far more careful in my presentation. But, Jim, you are concerned about other areas as well.

FALLOWS

10:51:49
Yes. And I think Evan, I'm sure, will address the West Virginia aspects of this. For the country as a whole -- I think this can be a bellwether case of problems with chemical regulation, with the water supply in general. Like, if you read any report people say or given warnings that our water supply, both in its volume and its safety, is an issue of concern so this is (unintelligible).

REHM

10:52:11
So it begins in a small area, but has implications?

OSNOS

10:52:15
Exactly. And I'm glad the caller mentioned that. I think one of the things that's important to point out is West Virginia is a place with enormous diversity in the different sorts of experiences you can have. And I encourage people to go. I should say that's one of the things that drew me there in the first place, is that it's a place that I love.

OSNOS

10:52:29
As you get outside the immediate area of this spill, I am -- I accompanied, for instance, the senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin, as he went to speak to a group of citizens far outside the spill area. And he expected to find a friendly group because they weren't affected. And what he discovered, in fact, was that there were people in that area in Fayette County who have their own concerns about local water quality because of injection wells, because of waste from natural gas drilling. So there are specific issues in all kinds of places. And it's worth recognizing them.

REHM

10:53:01
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to South Portland, Maine. Frederick, you're on the air.

FREDERICK

10:53:11
Good morning, Diane and gentlemen.

REHM

10:53:13
Hi.

FREDERICK

10:53:14
I wanted to draw an overview. I feel that we're now reaping the rotten fruits of this conservative ethos of less regulation and less taxation. Well, that's really the free market capitalism of conservatism that believes in less regulation and less taxation. Now, progressives and liberals really don't understand that conservatism is leading us toward a world of privatization.

FREDERICK

10:53:45
I feel in response that the Democratic Party and Democrats must highlight the role of effective government, the role of good government, which actually is our democracy. We cannot mistake free market capitalism for democracy. No. Free market capitalism is in economics, democracy is the law the regulations that we live. And I would like your esteemed panel to talk about the possibility of a progressive or liberal movement based on good governance, you know, fair taxation, honest regulations to build a sustainable economy because…

FALLOWS

10:54:25
And every single time progressives, Democrats, independents, Republicans make that point they should invoke, as their hero, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican president who thought that both progressivism and conserving what made the nation great involved protecting its resources (unintelligible) national parks and having regulation of pollution and sweat shops and all the rest. So Teddy Roosevelt, and after him even Richard Nixon showed that the Republican Party tradition can embrace defending our natural resources.

REHM

10:54:53
But that doesn't seem to be the way it's going, Evan.

OSNOS

10:54:56
No. In West Virginia, what you've seen is that, for instance, last year there were $40 million in tax cuts, as a result there have also been budget cuts across the agencies. And the Department of Environmental Protection this year takes another 7.5 percent cut in its state funds, bringing it to the lowest level it's had since 2008. So you do see that there are the direct consequences of promises that are made to voters, which are then very hard to back up without reducing government function.

OSNOS

10:55:20
I should say that one of the positive things that comes out of this experience is that the bill that was passed in West Virginia is a good bill. What they -- the law that was passed, under, I should say, intense public spotlight, really there was almost no way that they couldn't pass a good bill given the surge of public opinion that required them to take action here. But it is a demonstration that it is still possible, very much possible, to use the instruments of government appropriately and to pass laws that actually help people.

REHM

10:55:47
But these two incidents, are we simply going to put them to the backs of our minds or are we going to take some action?

FALLOWS

10:56:01
Who knows? I'm trying to think of whether the environment played any role whatsoever in our last presidential campaign or the one before that. Global warming issues sort of narrowly edged their way in. I think this is only the case if local politicians running for the governorship and senatorial roles and national politicians say this as an important part of realizing the American promise for the next generation of Americans. So we'll see whether that might happen.

OSNOS

10:56:28
I have to say I'm not particularly optimistic, considering that in the last Congress, for instance, Henry Waxman, who was chair of the House Energy Committee, called it the most anti-government Congress he had been a part of. You know, there has been, over the course of the last several years, a lot of the energy surrounding -- in the conservative movement has focused on environmental regulation as an example, as an object, as a target, as a way to really scale back what they perceive as an offensive level of government involvement. And we're now starting to see the impact in our daily lives.

REHM

10:56:56
Evan Osnos, staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent piece is titled, "Chemical Valley: The Coal Industry, the Politicians and the Big Spill." It appears in the April 7 issue of the magazine. Jim Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic Magazine. Thank you both so much.

FALLOWS

10:57:22
Thank you, Diane.

OSNOS

10:57:23
Thanks, Diane.

REHM

10:57:24
Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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