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West Virginia Suffers the Impact of Our Toxic Technology

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A week ago, I wrote about the need to reduce the toxicity of modern technology and observed that, "Many of the technologies that permeate our daily lives are built with materials that can poison living systems and beings if their disposal is not carefully managed." This week, the people of West Virginia have unfortunately been provided with a graphic example of the poisons that are central to our economic production process. Over 300,000 people in Charleston, the state's capital, and nine of its neighboring counties were told that their tap water could not be used. According to New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel:

Officials said that up to 5,000 gallons of an industrial chemical used in coal processing seeped from a ruptured storage tank into the Elk River, just upstream of the intake pipes for the regional water company. Authorities struggled to determine how much danger the little-known chemical, MCHM, or 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, posed...The owner of the ruptured tank, Freedom Industries, processes and stores chemicals used in the coal industry in 14 tanks on the Elk River, 2.5 miles upstream from the junction of the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston.

Later reports indicated that close to 7,500 gallons had leaked and as I write these words, the water emergency is in its fourth day. While a high percentage of West Virginians deny the validity of climate science as they desperately try to defend their all-important coal industry, the danger posed by this coal-processing chemical is too obvious to ignore. The chemical smells like licorice and is making people sick. You don't need to be a scientist to know that something is wrong. Normally, chemical storage tanks do not rupture and toxics don't get into the water system. But to err is human. And humans manage the production system that permitted the chemical tanks to rupture and took too long to stop. A well-thought-through production process would not have placed the chemical company's facility upstream from Charleston's water supply intake pipe. A better regulatory system would inspect both chemical storage and production facilities, but West Virginia doesn't have such a system; you know, "if you're gonna make an omelet you gotta break some eggs."

The overall quality of America's freshwater sources continues to improve, but as the country continues to grow and urbanize, dangers such as those seen in West Virginia remain. According to Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor, America's:

Rivers and streams are becoming cleaner thanks to industry advances and government regulation. But this week's chemical spill in West Virginia shows that threats to the environment and public water supplies remain... Coming after the deadly explosion at a chemical storage facility in Texas last year and three years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the leak of an estimated 5,000 gallons of a toxic coal-processing chemical into West Virginia's Elk River has quickly become a reminder of how deeply involved Americans are with heavy industry in their midst.

When assessing the relative risks posed by technology, it is critical to analyze the degree to which humans and critical environmental resources are in the pathway of exposure to potential hazards caused by toxic technology. A nuclear power plant like Indian Point, located just north of New York City, poses a greater risk to more people than a plant located near a smaller city. There are 20 million people living within a 50-mile radius of Indian Point. One of New York City's reservoirs is 15 miles from the plant. It is easy to argue that even if an accident at the plant is very unlikely, its impact could be massive. Still, projecting risk is not simple. The probability of events that must be assessed can vary widely, as can the intensity and irreversibility of an event's impact.

There is no way to make the world free of risk, and most of us would find a risk-free world incredibly boring. The task is not to eliminate risk, but to reduce its probability and intensity. That requires an attitude of prudent and careful economic development, management, regulation and enforcement. In America, we have the problem that many people consider government to be some sort of disease and see economic development and wealth as ends rather than means. To some, government regulation "kills jobs" and nothing is as important as the creation of economic wealth. Still, the absence of effective management at the ironically named Freedom Industries and the pathetic regulation of chemical storage facilities in West Virginia has led to mass economic loss for over 300,000 people. The reality of the issue seems to be interfering with the ideology that some people have been conditioned to apply when thinking about environmental issues.

Water, air and food are necessities, not luxuries. Air and water are collective, common resources that cannot be distributed through the "free market." Air and water quality must be protected by the government. There is no alternative to government policy, regulation and enforcement. The freedom to pursue economic gain cannot be allowed to threaten the drinking water of 300,000 people. I find it amazing that I am reduced to making this fundamental argument over four decades after Congress overrode Richard Nixon's veto and enacted the Federal Water Pollution Control Act back in 1972. Yet West Virginia itself is the epicenter of the latest anti-government surge. EPA's modest move to start regulating greenhouse gases is seen by locals as unwarranted government interference in the coal industry. The attempt to limit automatic weapons and require identity checks on gun purchasers is considered the first phase of an effort to deny hunters the right to bear arms. Why is anyone surprised that in this environment, Freedom Industries is permitted to store toxic chemicals in decrepit, corroding tanks?

The production, storage and use of toxic chemicals are unevenly regulated in the United States. Some state and local governments require that companies report on certain chemicals used in production, while some states have even moved to ban a few chemicals. Federal law requires companies to report the presence of toxic chemicals on their property, and according to the Wall Street Journal, Freedom Industries reported the presence of its toxic chemicals to the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. However, according to Jim Malewitz of Governing Magazine:

The burden to investigate many chemicals that could endanger human health has fallen to states, which have enacted a patchwork of regulations that environmentalists, policymakers and industry leaders all consider inadequate... Advocates of change now hope the increased awareness in state legislatures will translate into a sense of urgency in Congress, as it considers the latest attempt to overhaul the 35-year-old and never-updated Toxic Chemicals Safety Act... Much has changed in chemical manufacturing since 1976, when Congress passed the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act, and science continues to add volumes of new information about chemical hazards every year.

The fundamental issue is that the needs of economic development and the pace of technological change far exceed our political system's ability to provide adequate governance. We operate under the delusional assumption that all chemicals used in production are safe. To regulate chemicals, the government must prove that they are dangerous. In my view, the burden of proof is upside down. Industry should first be required to prove the substance is safe, or at least demonstrate that the benefits of the chemical to society-not to the company-are greater than the costs. It is finally time to apply the precautionary principle to chemicals used in production. Drug companies must prove that new drugs are safe and effective. Why not apply this practice to the use of new technologies? The alternative is more water crises like the one in West Virginia, along with similar air and water crises. Do we really want to wait until millions of people are poisoned and the environmental contamination lasts for months instead of days?

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