Elk River Spill sheds light on Regulation and Enforcement

It’s been almost a week since the Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia and some of the areas affected by the spill are finally getting access to clean water after going five days without a tap. During the emergency the National Guard provided relief by handing out bottles of water to affected areas, so residents were not completely without access.

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When any major industrial accident happens, the response is usually a call for more regulation on industries. But increasing regulations is not always the magical fix we hope. For 300,000 residents living in the Elk River area of West Virginia, the story is not so clear cut.

Freedom Industries, the owner of the chemical tank which leaked 4,800 gallons of MCHM (4-methylcyclohexane methanol) into the Elk River, did little, it could be argued, to anticipate a possible chemical spill. A plan for possible containment had been created in 2002, but site ownership changed hands shortly after and the plan was neither revised nor implemented. It seems easy to vilify Freedom Industries for their role, but the story doesn’t end there.

Environmental inspectors had visited the chemical storage facility to investigate complaints about chemical odors in 2010 and 2012 but didn’t find any evidence sufficient to require additional permits or citations. Then again, chemical storage facilities are not held to the strict standards of plants which process and manufacture chemicals. Prior to the inspection in 2010, the last inspection of the site was performed in 1991, a span of almost two decades.

Freedom Industries had also reported MCHM as an “immediate (acute) hazard” to the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, but the list was never distributed to relevant groups for assessment.

Could increased regulations have prevented the Elk River spill? Possibly, but it could have also been prevented with more regular inspections and an efficient dissemination of information to relevant organizations. Certainly, Freedom Industries could have implemented a containment protocols in case of an emergency, but as far as they knew they were operating in good confidence.

Regardless of who is at fault, preventing future spills like this should be a priority from a public health perspective, but a proper balance between regulation and enforcement should be considered.



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