West Virginia chemical spill: More hard lessons from coal

Diane Regas

The nine-county environmental catastrophe now unfolding in West Virginia – a spill of as much as 7,500 gallons of an industrial chemical used to wash coal, which hospitalized 169 people and left 300,000 more without drinking water – is a tragic reminder of the risks that spring from our dependence on fossil fuels.

Just as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill underscored the dangers of offshore drilling, so this spill shines a light on one of the ways our reliance on coal-fired generation makes us vulnerable. Emissions from coal-fired power plants put a wide variety of toxic chemicals into our air, including mercury, which is linked to brain damage and developmental problems in fetuses and babies. In 2012, coal-fired power plants alone caused 74 percent of carbon pollution from the power sector, though they only produced 37 percent of U.S. electricity. The chemical spilled in West Virginia, known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is used to wash coal and help separate the combustible fuel from unburnable rock and other impurities.

The MCHM spill raises a crucial question: are we finally ready to accelerate the transition to safer renewable fuel sources?

To be sure, no energy source is without risk, but cleaner alternatives are available now. In many places in the United States – and around the world – it is cheaper to build new wind and solar power than it is to build a new coal-fired plant. And emissions from wind and solar power are always cleaner than emissions from coal power.

Wind and solar power growth is surging.  Wind is now the fastest-growing source of power in the United States – representing 43 percent of all new U.S. electric generation capacity in 2012 and $25 billion in new investment, according to DOE. The California Solar Energy Industries Association reported that the Golden State added more rooftop solar power in 2013 than it did in the last 30 years combined. But we need to move further faster – and that’s why Environmental Defense Fund has launched a program called Clean Energy, designed to accelerate the transition to truly clean energy.

Even as we embrace renewable energy sources, those responsible must be held accountable. In West Virginia right now, families are without clean water and people are sick; local economies will be hard hit from interruptions to lots of small businesses that depend on water (hospitals, restaurants, hotels, anywhere people eat or need to wash). Just as BP was held accountable for the economic damage that sprang from the Deepwater Horizon spill, so must those responsible for this spill be made to pay. Yet the coal industry is already trying to back away from its responsibility, saying this is a chemical supplier incident, not a coal company accident. MCHM is used to wash coal. Period.

Chemical safety

The West Virginia disaster also draws into stark relief another policy area crying out for change: the need to modernize our country’s nearly 40-year old chemical safety law known as TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act).

Our chemical safety law is so inadequate that we have a situation in West Virginia where we know virtually nothing about the health impacts of the coal-processing chemical spilled into the Elk River. That’s chilling when you consider thousands of gallons of MCHM somehow leaked into the entire service area of the West Virginia American Water company.

One of the nation’s top experts in this area is my colleague, EDF senior scientist Dr. Richard Denison. Richard writes: “What is particularly maddening and outrageous is that no one – not local or state officials, not the company that owns the storage tank, not the federal government – can say anything even close to definitive about what risk the chemical poses to people, even in the short-term, let alone over time.  And that’s where the failures of TSCA come into sharp focus.” 

In the absence of safety data that would have been required from a more robust federal law, state officials and executives of the water company said yesterday they have restarted the water system after tests showed that levels of the toxic chemical reached a “safe” level of one part per million.

“The science behind this standard remains unclear,” Denison points out. “Based on what we do know, there are good reasons to believe that officials are overlooking significant health risks.” 

How can this happen?

How can a chemical in active production and use – and now being released into the environment in unknown quantity – be on the market without any publicly available hazard data or evidence of its safety? As Denison notes:

“The sad truth is this chemical is one of tens of thousands of chemicals on the market today with little or no safety data. MCHM is one of the 62,000 chemicals that were already in use when the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our nation’s main chemical safety law, was passed in 1976. All of these chemicals were grandfathered by TSCA:  That means they were simply presumed to be safe, and EPA was given no mandate to determine whether they are actually safe. Even to require testing of these chemicals under TSCA, EPA must first provide evidence that the chemical may pose a risk – a toxic Catch-22.”

What can we do?

When communities know about the toxic chemicals stored near their drinking water, they can prepare and help prevent disasters like this one. Long-overdue reform of TSCA – which is finally on Congress’ agenda – could go a long way to addressing that part of the problem.

If protecting American families from exposure to harmful chemicals is important to you, urge your senators to support stronger toxic chemicals controls.

Accountability for the Charleston chemical spill should be no different from the compensation BP and others were required to pay area businesses impacted by the disaster. Otherwise, coal continues to get a free ride while communities from Appalachia to the coasts and everywhere in between foot the bill.

We know fossil fuels are important in today’s economy, but it’s time we recognized the very serious costs that go with them – from air pollution to more asthma attacks to dangerous chemical exposure like we’re seeing in West Virginia.

It’s time we learned from our painful lessons with fossil fuels and move towards cleaner, safer energy.

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