Lack of regulation in West Virgina chemical spill is the rule not the exception

“People before profit” was a common slogan a couple years ago, when the Occupy Movement was in full swing. You saw it on signs and heard it in the chants of marchers. The idea that corporations and governments should prioritize the lives, health and happiness of human beings above the accumulation of wealth seems obvious to most people. And yet, the idea that corporations and governments are not doing this doesn’t seem to shock anyone. The slogan expresses a sentiment that nearly everyone agrees with, while simultaneously reminding us that it’s a pipe dream. While Occupy may have fallen out of the public consciousness, there are about 300,000 people in West Virginia right now who might be thinking that “people before profit” is a notion worth reconsidering.

West Virginia declared a state of emergency last week after about 7,500 gallons of a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol accidentally spilled into the Elk River, contaminating the tap water of nine counties and resulting in a ban on non-sanitation water use in the affected areas. Hundreds of thousands of residents were unable to use water for drinking, cooking or bathing, and numerous schools and businesses were shut down. The chemical, which we know little about except that it’s used in coal extraction, leaked from a tank at Etowah River Terminal, a chemical storage plant situated on the river.

The company that owns the plant is called Freedom Industries, because of course it is. The product of a recent merger that included Etowah River Terminal, its website claims that “Freedom Industries is a full-service producer of specialty chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries.” Nonetheless, it has been exempt from inspection by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) because it supposedly stores chemicals, but does not produce them. This is according to the DEP itself, which apparently doesn’t see a discrepancy in a full-blown producer that doesn’t produce. The difference seems to be that while Freedom Industries is a producer, Etowah River Terminal is simply a storage facility, responsible only for maintenance on the storage tanks. According to CNN, one county’s deputy director of emergency services described the leaking tank as “antique.”

Freedom Industries isn’t necessarily off the hook, however; the DEP is charging them with violating the West Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Act and the Water Pollution Control Act for not acting on the leak when it was discovered. On the morning of the incident, complaints from several residents about a strange smell prompted DEP officials to arrive on the scene at about 11:15 a.m. According to the DEP’s air-quality enforcement order, the officials “discovered that no spill containment measures had been initiated,” and Freedom Industries itself did not officially report the leak until 12:05 p.m.

“We were aware of the leaking storage tank around 10:30 a.m.,” said Gary Southern, speaking as the company president — even though their website says the president is someone named Dennis P. Farrell. “We load tank trucks of this material on a regular basis, and occasionally we’ve had reports of an odor previously.” When a local reporter asked Southern if people reporting a smell was Freedom Industries’ only mechanism for detecting a leak, Southern responded: “I think that’s all we have time for.”

This spill is the latest in a long line of safety incidents that collectively speak to the cost in human health inflicted by deregulation. Safety costs money — regulators have to be paid, safety mechanisms have to be purchased and installed, etc. — and it’s usually one of the first things on the corporate chopping block when the time has come to cut corners in the name of profit. Moreover, the idea that safety regulation — or any other kind — is detrimental to the purity of the free market and thus the United States economy is one of the central tenets of the orthodox neoliberal capitalism that has been whole-heartedly embraced by corporate America in the past 35 years or so.

In the days since the leak, Southern and Freedom Industries have said that their first priority is — and always has been — safety. If that were true, there would never have been a leak at all. The truth is Freedom Industries are simply being good American capitalists, embracing the overarching corporate mantra that screams “profits before people” at the top of its lungs. They’ll pay a fine and perhaps some damages for their negligence, but the scores of West Virginians currently being hospitalized for vomiting, dizziness and diarrhea are the ones paying the real price.

Originally published in The Lumberjack (


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