Water crisis case of lax regulation: W.Va., like Ky., too easy on polluters

The most shocking thing about the chemical leak that shut off water to 300,000 West Virginians is that it's not all that surprising.

Like Kentucky, West Virginia has a tradition of grousing about overbearing government regulation while tolerating industry shortcuts for ostensibly economic reasons.

It should be shocking that Freedom Industries was so brazenly negligent in its handling of chemicals along the Elk River just 1.5 miles above the water intake for the capital, Charleston.

That neither state regulators nor West Virginia American Water was monitoring this risk should also be shocking.

But experience has taught those of us who live downstream from the coal industry to expect the outrageous.

Remember the fall of 2000 in Kentucky when a coal-washing operation owned by now-defunct Massey Energy unleashed 250 million gallons of waste from a compromised impoundment in Martin County, fouling 100 miles of waterways and shutting down five municipal water treatment plants?

That was the most spectacular of thousands of coal industry abuses of Kentucky water.

It's not known how much 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), a chemical agent used to wash coal, escaped into Charleston's water last week or leached into the ground — 7,500 gallons is being reported.

If you live downstream from coal mining there's a good chance you've already ingested a little MCHM. But don't worry, it's not classified as toxic and will not kill you, at least not right away. That almost nothing is known about its effects or safe exposure levels due to weaknesses in federal law that should be repaired.

West Virginia, which produces more coal than Kentucky, is doubly "blessed" with a politically powerful chemical industry that wanted nothing to do with a proposed state program to prevent chemical spills.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board made the recommendation following its investigation of a 2008 explosion at a Bayer pesticide plant in Institute, W. Va. that killed two workers. The safety board reiterated its concerns in 2011 following a series of accidents that killed a worker at the DuPont Co. plant in Belle, W. Va.

The safety program could be modeled on a successful one in Contra Costa, Calif. and paid for with a fee on industry.

But, three years later, as Ken Ward reported in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, West Virginia is no closer to enacting obviously needed protections.

The chemical industry balked at what it called "additional economic burdens." Protecting safety and health does come at a cost. It's cheaper for industry to externalize those costs onto workers and the public, including 300,000 West Virginians who risked sickness and rashes by using the water that flows from their taps.

We've yet to see an estimate of the spill's cost, but it's a safe bet it will never be recovered from Freedom Industries. The damage to West Virginia's image (Wild and Wonderful, but Watch Out for the Water) is incalculable.

Until Kentuckians and West Virginians somehow regain their capacity for outrage, the public will keep paying heavily for the tradition of letting industry shift its environmental and safety costs onto others.