With a name like Freedom Industries, what could go wrong? As 300,000 residents in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia discovered last week, quite a lot — especially when the most precious natural resource in the world is endangered. While Freedom Industries may disagree, that resource is not coal.
The massive leak of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) into West Virginia’s Elk River effectively cut safe water access to a significant portion of the state. As the nation’s attention turned to West Virginia’s water woes, yet another debate began on the role of deregulation and the political power of the state’s coal industry.
It has been well-known for decades that West Virginia’s government has the lightest of touches on coal industry regulation, and high resistance to stricter federal laws. This pervasive hostility to regulations is a toxic formula of complete absence of them on one hand, and non-enforcement on the other. Either way, the net result is the same. Justification is always put in terms of profit first, as West Virginia’s blue collar workers depend on these jobs, and by god, regulations cost us money that will put them out of work. As evident with the Elk River spill, this rationale gets more hollow and harder to defend with each succeeding disaster.
Assessing the facts of the leak reveals three glaring problems: The storage container for the MCHM is on the river’s edge, is near a water treatment plant, and West Virginia does not require inspections of chemical storage facilities. There has been no federal or state inspection of this facility since 1991. Never mind that three years ago, the United States Chemical Safety Board made recommendations to Freedom Industries for preventing accidental leaks. The federal government has awakened in the spill’s aftermath, sending inspectors to evaluate the causes and extent of damage. Investigators from the U.S. Attorney’s office will determine any federal law violations.
Delving further, there is more to the leak than location or a simple lack of oversight. Journalist David Gutman with the West Virginia Gazette has uncovered suggestions of corporate malfeasance from the very top of Freedom Industries. According to Gutman:
[box type=”shadow”]Freedom Industries, the company responsible for contaminating the water of 300,000 Kanawha Valley residents, was founded by a two-time convicted felon, benefited from the 2009 federal stimulus and at least two of its executives have longstanding ties to the Charleston business community.
Since the chemical spill on Thursday, Freedom Industries executives have entirely avoided media requests, except for a brief news conference Friday night.
On Sunday morning, Charles Ryan Associates, a prominent Charleston public relations firm hired by Freedom, abruptly dropped the chemical distributor as a client.
“I made the decision not to represent them,” said Susan Lavenski, who was handling Freedom for Charles Ryan. She would not give any details as to why she would no longer represent the company.[/box]
When a public relations firm drops you like so much toxic slag, more questions are sure to arise. Will any meaningful reform come as a result of this spill? How can we enforce new regulations when old ones are still ignored? A bigger question for the people of West Virginia, and the nation at large: Is there ever an acceptable human cost in lives and health in the pursuit of profit? In the place known as Chemical Valley, West Virginia, a business called Freedom has yet to pay its price.
h/t: Common Dreams