The West Virginia chemical spill last week has drawn the attention of national and international media, law enforcement officials and politicians.
Last Thursday, state officials discovered a chemical leak from a 35,000-gallon storage tank operated by Freedom Industries.
The chemical — 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, also known as crude MCHM — had leaked from the tank, overflowed a containment area, and seeped into the Elk River.
The storage tank is located just upstream from an intake for the West Virginia American Water Company plant.
State officials quickly issued a stop-use warning to water customers in nine West Virginia counties.
But these officials were soon confronted with a lack of information about crude MCHM, which is used to clean coal.
In Charleston, former CBS news reporter Ed Rabel, a West Virginia native, is running for Congress in the second Congressional district.
Rabel has been pounding away at public officials from both political parties and their adherence to the West Virginia’s deregulatory dogma.
The presumptive Democratic nominee in the race is Nick Casey, a former lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“To those hoping that the environmental disaster in the Kanawha Valley is transitory, I say this — we must overcome, soon, the injuries and suffering caused by Freedom Industries and its so-called officers who are responsible for the unmitigated calamity that they have caused,” Rabel said in a statement.
“Once we’ve done that, we must hold accountable not just Freedom Industries, but all the irresponsible, shady, fast-buck operators that the coal industry brings into the state and their apologists in the state government, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito and U.S. Senator Joe Manchin.”
“For too long we have permitted these apologists and the outsiders who operate dangerous plants in cahoots with the coal barons to get away with their crimes against the people. Remember, the coal magnates don’t live in West Virginia and, therefore, don’t have to worry about clean, safe water or dangerous carcinogens in their homes far away. They take their enormous profits out of the state, reinvesting it in WV only when they line the pockets of their political apologists here.”
“I promise you that my very first act as your Congressman from the 2nd Congressional district will be to move for a Congressional investigation of the crimes committed here by big coal and its minions like Freedom Industries. And I will not rest until there is justice.”
In Washington, Democrats took Rabel up on his idea. Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-California) and Paul Tonko (D-New York), called for hearings.
In Charleston, the U.S. Attorney promised an investigation.
“As the immediate water crisis begins to ease and West Virginians regain access to drinkable water, I want to make three things clear,” said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin in a statement released today. “One, my office will continue working as quickly as possible to find out exactly what happened here, including the complete timeline of the release and what was done — or not done — before and after it. Two, if our investigation reveals that federal criminal laws were violated, we will move rapidly to hold the wrongdoers accountable. And three, companies whose facilities could affect the public water supply should be on notice: if you break federal environmental laws, you will be prosecuted. Our drinking water is not something you can take chances with, and this mess can never be allowed to happen again.”
David Uhlmann, former head of the Environmental Crimes Section at the Justice Department and currently a Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, has publicly taken Goodwin to task for his failure to criminally prosecute Massey Energy for the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners.
The Labor Department issued a 972-page report on the explosion — the nation’s worst mining disaster in 40 years, concluding that Massey’s “unlawful policies and practices” were the “root cause of this tragedy.” The report documented 300 violations of the Mine Safety and Health Act, including nine flagrant violations that contributed to the explosion.
“Based on the Labor Department’s investigation, the Justice Department could have criminally prosecuted Massey under the Mine Safety and Health Act for the violations that caused the explosion,” Uhlmann wrote in the New York Times on December 9, 2011. “Prosecutors also could have charged the company with conspiracy and obstruction of justice for the ways it thwarted regulation. Instead, on the same day the devastating report was released, the Justice Department announced that it would not criminally prosecute Massey.”
As for the chemical leak in Charleston this week, Uhlmann said that It is “too soon to know whether criminal charges would be appropriate for the Elk River spill.”
“At a minimum, the company involved will be responsible for cleanup costs, compensating victims of the spill, and possibly civil penalties under the Clean Water Act,” Uhlmann said. “Whether criminal charges are appropriate will depend upon whether the spill was caused by negligence or intentional conduct. Those are issues that investigators will be looking at in the weeks and months ahead but first it’s critical to stop the spill and restore safe, clean drinking water to the affected communities.”