Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, this is the same company whose storage tanks failed, spilling carcinogens into the Elk River and polluting the water supplies of nine West Virginia counties.
At least 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) were released into the river at a site “just upstream from a major water treatment plant.” The chemical is mainly used to wash coal. Since the spill, a second chemical has been unearthed by a probe investigating the spill site.
TCF’s Joe Miller, a native West Virginian, wrote in response to the spill, “I was horrified but not particularly surprised.” West Virginia tends to ally with dangerous industries, Joe points out, issuing “Friends of Coal” license plates and suing the federal agencies meant to enforce regulations.
But do these sorts of state actions really speak for West Virginia?
Charleston, where the spill originated, and the surrounding “Chemical Valley” faces high poverty and low education rates, leaving the area’s residents disempowered in the face of powerful industries that promise to uplift the region.
Short-term economic gains become reasonably prioritized when these companies move in, with industry heads attracted to cheap land and West Virginians attracted to jobs. As Dave Zucchino reports, the area’s “chemical industry provides at least 9,950 jobs directly and 27,000 related jobs.”
On average, the nine counties directly impacted by the spill have a poverty rate of 20.8%. The national average is 14.9%.
Unfortunately, therein lies a clue for why “no agency had conducted regular inspections of those tanks, even though they are perched on a steep bank that tumbles down to the river northeast of downtown Charleston.” Because Chemical Valley is a victim of “environmental racism,” the deliberate use of lands inhabited by people of color and the poor by certain industries.
In his post, Miller refers to the 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India, which killed 3,800 people within several days. Bhopal, a medium-sized city in a relatively depressed region, serves as a valuable case study, exemplifying how environmental costs are displaced onto the less fortunate.
In Bhopal, as in Charleston, the chemical industry did not issue adequate warnings about health risks, and emergency plans weren’t developed. In Bhopal, as in Charleston, the government embraced the chemical industry in spite of risks it posed for the poor–because to reject it would ensure underdevelopment and poverty.
“I can't believe there is not a law against what they did,” Charleston's mayor, Danny Jones, told the Los Angeles Times. “Quite frankly…somebody needs to go to jail.”
Someone may go to jail, and damages will likely be paid, but unfortunately such after-the-fact compensation does little to safeguard or empower the community.
West Virginians require the right to participate in environmental planning before disasters happen. Only then will the imbalance of wealth, power and knowledge be leveled in rural Chemical Valley and in similar areas across the United States.
As West Virginia residents seek legal compensation for the spill, we should hope they consider ways to prevent future crises. Though these accidents are rare, they are both dangerous and unnecessary.