In early January, 300,000 people in West Virginia were left without safe tap water after a chemical spill on the banks of the Elk River into West Virginia’s Elk River contaminated the region’s water system. Two weeks later, we have a better understanding of the multiple systemic failures that put that community at risk. But there are still many unanswered questions. And one of the major lessons of this ongoing crisis is the urgent need to reform our country’s inadequate chemical safety laws.
Environmental Defense Fund senior scientist Dr. Richard Denison has been closely tracking the issue, and if you’d like a clearer scientific understanding of what we know and don’t know about the chemicals spilled, you’d do well to check out his posts. His latest, published Sunday afternoon, took a hard look at the multiple failures underscored by the spill. Poor information, poor communications, and poor decisions all added up to a seriously “epic fail.”
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that the private and public sectors at all levels failed miserably with regard to protecting the public’s health,” Denison writes. “There is plenty of blame to go around.” While there are many parts of the system that failed, he highlights two major problems that demand close examination as causes and consequences of the spill are investigated:
- The near total dearth of accurate, actionable information available not only to first responders, but in fact to layers of local, state and federal officials who spent days trying to sort out whether the water was safe for drinking, washing or cooking. Authorities appear to have initially relied on Eastman Chemical Company’s incomplete and out-of-date Material Safety Data Sheet on “crude MCHM,” and as a result sowed confusion and shifting advice that has led to widespread public mistrust.
- Even after Eastman finally provided more data, those same officials appear to have accepted without scrutiny Eastman’s own conclusions about the risks posed by the chemical, blocked from conducting their own assessment because Eastman only provided summaries of its additional toxicity studies.
“The damage to public trust has been done and will not be easily undone,” Denison says, but he also has some pragmatic suggestions for how we might move forward to address one major dimension of the system failure. Underlying this entire sad story is the fact that, when they needed it the most, authorities had access to very little information about the health impact of the spilled chemical MCHM—even though it is produced in huge volume – and as a result struggled to decide what level in drinking water could be declared “safe.” Key reforms to our major federal chemical law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), are needed to provide better information on which to base safety decisions for the tens of thousands of chemicals in use that we know precious little about.
To be clear, toxic chemicals aren’t exclusively an industrial problem; they're also found in a shocking number of common household products. If protecting American families from exposure to harmful chemicals is important to you, urge your senators to support stronger toxic chemicals controls.