Coincidences and chemical spills

On the morning of Thursday, January 9, residents of Charleston, West Virginia complained about a licorice-like chemical smell. Within a few hours, West Virginia officials identified the source of the leak as the Freedom Industries chemical storage site. The chemical was identified as “Crude MCHM” or 4-Methylcylcohexane Methanol, a chemical used in coal production.

Officials quoted in news pieces about the spill keep repeating how little we know about crude MCHM and its toxicity. (From the MSDS: “No specific information is available in our database regarding the toxic effects of this material for humans.”)

What we do know is that about 7,500 gallons of crude MCHM spilled into the Elk River, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without safe water for days.

Later that same afternoon, the US House of Representatives debated HR 2279, the “Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act of 2014.” In its current form, the bill combines multiple pieces of legislation that passed the Energy & Commerce Committee last June.

Back then, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) proudly said about his committee’s accomplishments:

“Today we took a key step toward enacting four pieces of important legislation to protect human health and the environment, reduce red tape, protect jobs, and improve the partnership between the federal and the state governments.”

But not everyone sees it that way.

The environmental group Earthjustice:

The bill strikes at the heart of the Superfund, which over the past three decades has allowed the EPA and other federal agencies to identify and clean up thousands of polluted sites across the country.”

A coalition of 129 groups, including big names like the Sierra Club, the NAACP, Greenpeace, and the League of Conservation Voters:

“The three bills that comprise H.R. 2279 weaken the nation’s hazardous waste laws and place American communities at increased risk of toxic exposure and financial liability. (PDF)

The Office of Management and Budget, in a letter recommending the President veto the legislation:

“[I]t would make a number of problematic changes to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which could delay remediation of national priority cleanup projects with the most urgent human health and safety risks. (PDF)

HR 2279 passed along mostly-partisan lines, 225-188. All of Indiana’s Republican Representatives — Brooks, Bucshon, Messer, Rokita, Stuztman, Walorski, and Todd Young — voted for the bill. (Democratic Reps. Andre Carson and Pete Visclosky opposed the bill.)

Indiana has 44 sites on the National Priorities List, although cleanup is finished at some of them.

In related news, the House approved an omnibus spending measure yesterday. House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) boasted in a fact sheet that, “Overall, EPA funding has been reduced by $2.1 billion – or 20.4% – since Republicans gained control of the House in 2010. (PDF)”

See also: “House Republicans Just Quietly Passed A Bill Gutting Hazardous Waste Legislation,” Kate Sheppard, Huffington Post, January 10, 2014