Elk River Disaster: Lax Oversight Puts Citizens in Peril (video)


ElkRiver-def01_up-2_mediumby Pamela Powers Hannley

The lives of 300,000 central West Virginia residents were thrown into chaos a week ago when 1000s of gallons of solvent leaked from a storage tank and drained into the scenic Elk River, contaminating the water supply.

Initially, citizens were told to not only stop drinking the water but also to not even shower with it, due to the extreme levels of contamination. As residents left the capitol city of Charleston to find clean water to drink, cook, and bathe, the story of lax environmental oversight of the WV plant unfolded. According to the LA Times, the leaking storage tank owned by Freedom Industries, Inc. had not been inspected since 1999. The latest news is that Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy on Friday, January 17. (What are the implications for Southern Arizona? Think Rosemont Mine and read on.)

From the LA Times...

"I can't believe there is not a law against what they did," Charleston's outspoken mayor, Danny Jones, said in an interview. He called the chemical company "a bunch of renegades who have done irreparable harm to this valley."

"Quite frankly," he said, "somebody needs to go to jail."

At least 7,500 gallons of the foaming agent cascaded past a containment area and poured into the Elk River. The spill left more than 300,000 residents of Kanawha County, which includes Charleston, and eight surrounding counties without water after the governor issued an emergency do-not-use order. People couldn't use tap water to drink, bathe, brush teeth or wash dishes or clothes. Boiling it would do no good. The U.S. attorney's office in Charleston has begun an investigation.

It was hardly the first accident to spew dangerous chemicals in West Virginia, where the economy is built on the coal and chemical industries. Despite periodic accidents, the two industries have teamed with politicians in a deeply conservative state (Mitt Romney won 62% of votes in the 2012 presidential election) to fight environmental regulations.

The Department of Environmental Protection last inspected the tanks in 1999, when the site was owned by an oil company. The tanks at the time contained "hazardous waste-generating" oil products, department spokesman Tom Aluise said in an interview. But the tanks now hold chemicals and do not require state inspections because they don't contain material considered hazardous, he said.

Federal inspections are not required because "atmospheric tanks" like the one operated by Freedom Industries are exempt under federal safety inspections because they are not under pressure, cooled or heated — and are not involved in chemical processing, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

"They fall through the cracks," Daniel M. Horowitz, managing director of the board, which has advocated revising the regulations, said in an interview.

There is a disturbing pattern of lax oversight of industry in the US. Remember the fire that engulfed a Texas fertilizer plant and parts of the nearby town in 2013? According to MSNBC, not only had the fertilizer plant not been inspected, Homeland Security didn't know the plant existed.

So, why should Southern Arizonans care about these industry-caused environmental disasters? All I have to say is: Rosemont Mine. The Arizona Daily Star's endorsement of Rosemont Mine (today, how ironic) is naive; the editors make a only passing mention of potential water problems that Rosemont Mine could cause. They write that the environmental impact of the mine (which will be 2.5 times the size of the University of Arizona campus) has been adequately assess and that they trust regulators to keep our fragile desert safe from water-related disasters like Elk River. I'm not convinced. The people of Sardinia, Italy trusted that Rosemont operatives would protect their environment and mitigate any damage. (See the Cyanide Beach video below.)

From Crooks and Liars

Cyanide Beach connects Vancouver, BC mining executives who want to build the controversial Rosemont open pit copper mine on the outskirts of Tucson, to a defunct Italian gold mining operation in Sardinia, Italy. Many of the same executives who want to build the Rosemont mine, directly contributed to an unfolding environmental and financial disaster in Sardinia.

“Cyanide Beach” provides insight on what could happen in Southern Arizona if the proposed Rosemont Copper mine is allowed to go forward.

Rosemont Copper Company intends to dump billions of tons of mine waste laced with mercury, lead, arsenic and other poisons on more than 3,000 acres of the Coronado National Forest. American taxpayers would receive no royalties for the five billion pounds of copper that would be mined over two decades. Rosemont intends to export all of the copper to overseas markets, where it will be refined and re-imported into the U.S.

Thanks to long-term drought, overgrazing, over-development, and poor management of scarce natural resources, Tucson's desert environment is already very fragile. What would happen to Southern Arizona's water supply if an Elk River disaster happened here? Rosemont's ~400 jobs over 20 years is not a good trade for a secured supply of clean water. We should take heed of the hard lessons learned by these other trusting communities. 

How many more citizens must killed or injured before the US Congress realizes that environmental oversight and industrial regulation should be public health priorities?



  1. Spot on, Russell. You make a valid point about the fuzzy job creation figures. And yes, states like West Virginia and Arizona with rich natural resources shouldn’t allow themselves to be duped by these multinational corporations. They’re in it for the money and nothing else.

  2. It is shameful that the Arizona Daily Star endorsed this mine in their editorial today. They tout 400 good-paying jobs, taking the word of the company. Augusta/Rosemont claimed 300 jobs before they arbitrarily went up to 400. Then when they scaled back a major component of their proposed mining practice, they never adjusted the jobs down. Robotics will probably cause the real number to be closer to 100. Then, on top of that, they don’t highlight the number of jobs lost in the tourism sector. Many more jobs would be lost than gained with this mine, in the tourism sector (see the Power report at SSSR’s website). Rosemont = net job loss. Tourism in 2010 brought in $10 billion in AZ, with mining at $5B. Mining is on the decline and tourism is on the rise.

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