Friday, January 17, 2014

Regulators are not toxic

     It seems unlikely that friends coming over for dinner would be asked how much 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCMH) they would like in their water. Sadly, that is exactly the question the citizens of southwestern West Virginia have had to ask this week.

     On Jan. 9, residents of nine West Virginia counties were told they could not drink, bathe, wash clothes or otherwise use any water from the Elk River. A 48,000-gallon storage tank located about a mile upriver from the drinking water had leaked MCMH, a toxic chemical used to wash coal. It can cause skin and eye irritation, but no one is sure what other damage it might cause nor at what levels.

     The 300,000 residents of these counties have now been told they may once again safely drink and use their water, after they completely flush their systems. Many seem less than reassured, perhaps because the CEO of Freedom Industries, which owns the tank, was drinking bottled water when he took questions from reporters following the all-clear announcement.

     Where were the government regulators that keep an eye out where chemicals are concerned? While it is not clear exactly how much chemical the tanks leaked, it is clear that those tanks had not had rigorous oversight. They reportedly had not been inspected since 1991.

     There is much absurdity in the regulation process. The Environmental Protection Agency is not permitted to do studies on the safety of a chemical until there is proof that the chemical actually poses a danger. If there is no such evidence because a chemical is new or no studies have been done, regulators have no jurisdiction.

     Even when a chemical is known to pose a risk, the levels of that risk are often not certain, especially with an industrial chemical like MCMH. The Elk River leak might affect not only West Virginia but also Ohio River towns like Pomeroy or Cincinnati. No one knows.

     Regulation also faces significant political headwind. Idaho’s Congressman Mike Simpson, chair of the Interior and Environment subcommittees, has proposed $1.5 billion cuts to the EPA. He represents the view that regulation only hurts the economy and pushes unwelcome government further into the lives of citizens.

     The Elk River incident demonstrates, however, that citizens need the protection of the EPA and other government regulators. We need them to do research and examine containers of chemicals.

     How much 4-methylcyclohexane methanol would your guests like in their water? It’s a question no one should ever have to ask.

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