Public subsidizing polluters' damage, neglect

January 27, 2014 

Robert F. Moore of Somerset is a mechanical contractor and columnist for the Kentucky Commonwealth-Journal.

  • At issue: Jan. 19 Associated Press story, "W.Va. spill latest case of coal tainting waters; Air regulations tighter, but others lagging"

The Elk River meets the Kanawha within the boundaries of Charleston.

Freedom Industries can be found mere feet from the banks of the Elk. On Google Earth huge storage tanks are visible, with no means of containment between them and the river. Downstream lies the intake for West Virginia American Water.

On Jan. 9, some of a chemical virtually unpronounceable by anyone without a degree in chemistry leaked from one of the storage tanks into the Elk. The amount is estimated at about 5,000 gallons but it contaminated the entire water system and hundreds of thousands of people were left without water for drinking, cooking or bathing.

Businesses were forced to close and the region was virtually paralyzed.

The president declared a disaster area which allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which the Tea Party wants to eliminate, to intervene with emergency assistance. Now, the all-clear has been given to use the water but people can still smell the scent of licorice and are becoming ill from using it.

Is this just a cost of doing business, part of the cost of having a job? Should we just accept this as an unavoidable occurrence from time to time?

Well, at least until the Tea Party has its way, we still have FEMA, funded by tax dollars. So, those who approve of social programs and their impact on societies are glad that we, as a nation, helped Charleston in its time of need. Those who think social programs are a waste of money and only enable losers and no-goodniks will clench their teeth and rage against the mommy state.

Or would they? Perhaps depending on their proximity to the catastrophe.

So, here we have a profitable business that supplies chemicals used to clean coal. As a result of this accident there has been a great deal of consternation among citizens and undetermined millions of dollars of damage to the local economy and the environment. The effect on public health is yet to be determined.

Who pays for all this damage, to clean up the water system, for lost productivity, medical bills? Did anyone believe that those storage tanks were safe in perpetuity and needed no containment provisions? Why wasn't there more regulatory oversight and inspections?

Let's say that in a free-enterprise world the entity that creates the damage pays the bills. I'm OK with that but that is not what happens. After the Gulf oil spill, huge amounts of money were assessed against BP but the true costs have neither been assessed nor paid for.

But let's say that Freedom Industries has to pay to clean this up. It has already filed for bankruptchy. Then who pays the bills? The taxpayer, or those harmed just suffer through no fault of their own without any further recourse.

What if Freedom had to charge enough to cover these unforeseen costs? Would its product be as competitive? What if the coal industry had to pay the costs of reclamation, water damage, air pollution and cleanup, and removing mercury from our fish? Isn't that capitalism at its finest? Would coal still be as affordable as some say it is?

This is not free enterprise. This is socialism for industry and our economic system is shot through with it. Allowing pollution only makes the price of the product a false price. It's a pervasive system of political corruption that keeps most citizens in the dark about the true costs of doing business while cramming the pockets of those with enough clout to buy legislation.

The divide between haves and have-nots grows ever wider until, like the proverbial frog in the cooking pot, we are done. The GOP is managing to cut the budget for enforcement of consumer protection regulations. Time to get mad about it.

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