A poison flows in West Virginia

January 11, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 11, 2014

Since Thursday evening, all or parts of nine West Virginia counties have been ordered not to use public water systems for anything but flushing toilets. The ban was issued after up to 5,000 gallons of methylcyclohexene methanol or 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, a chemical used to clean coal, leaked into the Elk River.

I’ve seen different estimates on how many people are affected by the contamination, but it seems to range from about 300,000 to 480,000 — 15 to 25 percent of the state’s population. Restaurants, schools and other businesses have had to close. Stores rapidly sold out of bottled water after the usage ban was issued. Authorities dispatched a small fleet of water tankers to the area and also made arrangements to distribute bottled water. 

It’s not yet clear how long it might take the river to dilute the chemical to levels that will be safe for drinking, washing and other normal uses.

I have three takeaways from this:

• People and businesses should keep bottled water on hand for emergency purposes. I have at least two or three large bottles filled with drinking water in my refrigerator at all times, in addition to a collection of smaller bottles that contain various amounts of liquid. If my city of Durham, N.C., were to ban water usage today, I might go out and buy some bottled water — but I wouldn’t have an urgent need for it, at least not over the first day or two.

(Note: I live alone; if I had pets or lived with others, I would want to have more water on hand.)

• Our nation needs to have a serious discussion about how we produce energy. I don’t think most Americans, myself included, fully understand all of the advantages and disadvantages of what we are doing. I’m not calling for any specific course of action; I am saying that we need to think carefully about what we are doing and whether our current course is wise.

• Our society also needs to rethink our attitudes toward industrial disasters. To my knowledge, no one has died thus far because of the West Virginia chemical spill. However, the expense (let alone the inconvenience) caused by the leak is likely to be enormous, when everything is said and done.

Granted, most industrial disasters don’t have the same sensational appeal that many crime stories do. These accidents can also be harder to report on; not only do they sometimes involve specialized, hard-to-understand mechanisms, they may also involve government bureaucracies that don’t share as much information as law enforcement agencies typically do.

But all too often, a deep dig into these incidents reveals safety inspection and permitting processes that are lax or underfunded. Frequently, there’s a pattern of penalties that either are not enforced or are too minuscule to dissuade dangerous conditions.

I’m not saying this is necessarily the case in West Virginia. But it’s worth contemplating whether politicians’ eagerness to cut back on government spending and bureaucracy has had a net positive or negative effect on public safety.

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