Doubts About the Safety of West Virginia Drinking Water As Republicans Push Deregulation

The idea of clean, safe drinking water in West Virginia after Liberty Industries allowed 7,500 gallons of a toxic and little known chemical to leak into the Elk River is still not guaranteed for 300,000 residents. Although the last of the “do not use” bans were lifted last Saturday meaning all of West Virginia American Water’s customers were given the green light to use and drink their water, it is still unclear, and highly doubtful, that the water is safe to drink.

On Monday at a press conference, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin who said he is not a scientist told reporters that “It’s your decision, if you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking with this water then use bottled water. I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe, but what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use it.” If residents are wise, they will heed the coded warning in Tomblin’s statement because it is still unclear what exactly spilled into the river or whether or not proper tests have been conducted to identify all the toxic chemicals that were released. The chemical that Liberty Industries identified, crude MCHM, is a mixture of six chemicals, but only the pure form of the main ingredient has been studied and may not account for other chemicals that leaked into the river. Yesterday, West Virginia regulators ordered Freedom Industries to immediately disclose all materials involved in the recent spill that poisoned the water supply after the company admitted there was a second chemical that spilled into the Elk River.

According to West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Cabinet Secretary Randy Huffman, “Having this revelation so late in the game is completely unacceptable.   We have ordered Freedom to reveal any other information they have regarding the contents of the tank that leaked.” That Freedom Industries withheld vital information about the chemicals that spilled into the river is criminal and they need to be held accountable for concealing, until yesterday, the extent of the leak. That the West Virginia EPC “had to order them to provide such obvious information is indicative of the continued decline of their credibility” Huffman said in a statement. State regulators should have shut down the company immediately for failing to report the presence of the second chemical, but they likely lack the enforcement power and instead ordered them to disclose everything that leaked into the river by 4 p.m. yesterday.

Even though the water is allegedly safe to drink, the Centers for Disease Control warned pregnant women to drink bottled water until there were absolutely no detectable levels of MCHM in the water supply.  State officials and health care professionals recommended that small children not drink the water and that schools only use bottled water even after the water was deemed safe to consume. There is a very good reason for all West Virginians in the affected area to stay away from the poisoned water according to a former West Virginia coal miner, Joe Stanley, who said he has not been drinking the water for years.

Stanley knows why most of the water in and around coal mining country is toxic because he worked at West Virginia’s Marrowbone Coal Mine from 1981 to 1996 for Massey Energy. Massey is the company responsible for the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in 2010 that killed 29 miners because company officials refused to listen to safety concerns from men working in the mines.  Stanley’s employment with Massey was terminated after a he demanded an official inquiry into which chemicals were being used in the mine after claims they were making mine workers get sick. Stanley said, “I watched the coal industry poison our water for years. Now they’re telling us not to drink the water? We’ve been dumping this stuff into unlined ponds and into old mines for years. This MCHM was just one of the chemicals we were told was highly toxic, but that we dumped it into old mine shafts and slurry ponds that seeped into groundwater for years.” Stanley’s claims are backed up by a 2012 Environmental Protection Agency assessment that identified 132 cases where coal-fired power plant waste damaged rivers, streams and lakes, and 123 where it tainted underground water sources according to an AP investigation.

It is important to remember that House Speaker John Boehner, recipient of more coal industry money than any House member, said “We have enough regulations on the books and what this administration ought to be doing is doing their jobs.” Republicans have slashed EPA funding for inspections and enforcement by 20% over the past three years informing that it is Republicans who are preventing the EPA from “doing their jobs” and not the Obama Administration. In fact, Republicans were so certain there are sufficient regulations to keep the water supply safe, they passed three bills last Thursday to eliminate the EPA’s authority over states in addition to several riders neutering the environmental watchdog’s authority in the recent budget. According to a new poll, over half of the American people disagree with Boehner and Republican claims there are enough regulations in place to keep the water supply safe.

An unambiguous 51% of the poll’s respondents said the government should enforce more stringent regulations on companies that manufacture and store chemicals, and people who identified as Republican were more likely to not favor new regulations. Only 34% of Americans said they were “very confident” that the tap water in their area was safe to drink. House Democrats have asked Republicans to conduct hearings “to examine regulatory gaps in the nation’s toxic chemical control laws” to protect the water supply, but instead Republicans are voting on three measures to eliminate the EPA’s ability to inspect, enforce regulations, and protect the water supply.

Americans need to remember that just a little over two weeks ago Republicans offered their grand “job creation” plan that featured gutting regulations as the be all, end all method of putting Americans back to work. Their focus is not on creating jobs, or protecting America’s water supply, but giving the dirty energy industry, especially dirty coal, greater freedom to skirt environmental protections and poison the one resource humans cannot live without. To keep the campaign contributions flowing, Republicans are systematically eliminating the EPA’s inspection and enforcement ability evidenced by their votes to restrict the agency’s oversight and authority in the states, or use scare tactics to convince voters the EPA is an existential threat. The West Virginia miner, Joe Stanley, who warned “Don’t drink the water, just don’t do it,” showed what West Virginians hoping their water is safe to drink are up against when he held up the local Republican Senate candidate’s campaign sign that says, “SAVE COAL, END THE EPA.” At the current rate of deregulatory frenzy among Republicans, Americans in and around coal mines should read the sign as “SAVE COAL, END SAFE WATER.”



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