The terrible water contamination disaster in West Virginia is not over yet. Even when all the faucets are on, the lessons learned are likely to be modest, given the grip of the coal industry on the state. One can hope, however, that the crisis might make a dent in the Republican “small government” ideology, with its war on regulations and regulators. The President of the West Virginia Senate said in a Washington Post interview January 14, “People always beat the drum about too much government regulation… My goodness, there are 300,000 people I guarantee wish they had a little more regulation.”

No one can still get their head around the fact the containers holding the MCHM chemical and arrayed along a bluff on the Elk River just upstream from the water intake pipe for Charlestown were last inspected in 1991, or the fact that an employee of the company that owned the facility tried to stop the leak with a concrete block. It was residents, smelling the distinctive licorice smell of the MCHM chemical, who raised the alarm, not the company. It does not take a Saturday Night Live comedian to wonder if the take away message here for the companies involved is that they need to work on making coal washing chemicals odorless, not safe.

However strong the crisis driven wish to regulate the safety of the water, finding out who to regulate or who to hold accountable isn’t so easy. The tank farm in question is owned by the company Etowah River Terminal, in turn owned by the Orwellian named Freedom Industries. The chief executive of Freedom Industries is being criticized for not communicating with authorities and has not been available for public comment beyond issuing a quick apology. In addition, the makers of the chemical, Eastman Chemical Company of Kingsport, Tennessee, declined to make studies of the chemical available, on the grounds that it was proprietary information.

It has been largely the Feds to the rescue. President Obama declared an emergency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent 370,000 gallons of potable water to Charleston. The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are testing the waters for safe levels of the contaminant. The US attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia is opening an investigation.

On the other hand, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection underestimated the 7,500 gallon spill by 2,500 gallons. The governor is “developing” plans to guide people in cleaning their plumbing systems and is giving residents a credit on their water bills! To be fair, at the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency has apparently based its standard for a safe level of MCHM on one study that is challenged by the Environmental Defense Fund.

I am reminded of another crisis – Hurricane Irene. In that case Connecticut Light and Power fell down on its job, leaving 600,000 people without light or power for 10 days. But the state authorities in Connecticut had no address to send directives or information requests. Connecticut Light and Power was a subsidiary of another company, Northeast Utilities, incorporated in Maine. But how was state government of Connecticut to demand improved performance? There is no Northeast government to hold Northeast Utilities accountable.

In terms of confronting small government ideology it is relatively easy to point out how the confusion of jurisdictions works to the benefit of corporations wanting to evade oversight. But there is another factor and that is to look at our economy from the perspective of individual workers. Republican ideologues assume that tax money used to implement regulations somehow reduces employment, by presenting disincentives to business to employ more workers. They also mange to add the assumption that people working for the private sector are automatically better that people working for the public sector, even morally better, despite the word “service” in the phrase “public service.” On the contrary, employing individuals in the public sector – the inspectors and regulators – adds employment, adds consumer demand in the economy and provides public services, such as public safety, that are essential to economic growth. In addition, unlike these mysterious “Freedom Industries”, they are accountable to the people who are paying for them.

– Elizabeth Spiro Clark

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