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West Virginia Spill Highlights Regulation Debate

Hand washingThe recent chemical spill in West Virginia – which left up to 300,000 residents and many businesses without drinkable tap water – has raised questions about proper levels of environmental regulation on business.

News articles have painted Freedom Industries’ spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used in the coal industry, as the latest in the state’s series of environmental disasters. In 2008, an explosion and fire killed two workers at a Bayer CropScience plant. In 2010, a DuPont plant released toxic gas, killing another worker, the New York Times reports.

The US Chemical Safety Board responded to the emergencies by urging the state, on several occasions, to institute new regulations.

Now the office of US attorney Booth Goodwin has opened a criminal investigation into the Freedom Industries case, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched its own probe. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin is working with the state Department of Environmental Protection to craft rules aimed at preventing future leaks.

And West Virginia Senate president Jeffrey Kessler said legislators are considering tighter regulations, including rules to require earlier notification of spills, and larger setbacks from water supplies. The Freedom Industries leak was first detected by residents, by smell – not by the chemical company or water supplier, the New York Times reports.

But while NRDC senior scientist and environmental health lecturer Jennifer Sass says West Virginia has a pattern of dangerously lax environmental regulation, others say it’s impossible to make a fair comparison.

Randy Huffman, the secretary of the state DEP, points out that the state depends heavily on its coal and chemical industries. “Based upon the types of industrial activity, how does it compare to the rest of the country? It’s not in context.”

Takeaway: The chemical spill in West Virginia has focused attention on what critics describe as a a lax regulatory environment.

Tamar Wilner is Senior Editor at Environmental Leader PRO. 

Picture credit: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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