Hundreds of thousands of West Virginians remain without clean water and anger grows against corporations’ power to facilitate deregulation of environmental standards
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
A toxic spill in West Virginia’s Elk River has left 300,000 local residents without water for the past week. The leak came from a storage facility for chemicals used to process coal, and it’s left many wondering if industry regulations are too lax, especially for the company responsible for the leak, Freedom Industries.
Let’s take a look at what the president of the company had to say after being pressed by a local reporter about mapping out a timeline for the cleanup.
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GARY SOUTHERN, PRESIDENT, FREEDOM INDUSTRIES: We were aware of the leaking storage tank around 10:30. We load tank trucks of this material on a regular basis, and occasionally we’ve had reports of an odor previously. So we were first aware of any material being spilled at 10:30 yesterday.
CALLIE KART, REPORTER, WCHS: Could it have been earlier than yesterday? ‘Cause we’ve also received reports into our newsroom that it was as early as Wednesday, possibly Tuesday, people were starting to smell this in the area.
SOUTHERN: We have no information on that.
KART: Are there no systems in place to alert you of a leak at your facility other than a smell?
SOUTHERN: At this moment in time, I think that’s all we have time for. So thanks for coming. Thanks for your time.
KART: We have more questions. Hey, hey, hey!
DESVARIEUX: With us to discuss the recent accident is Russell Mokhiber. He’s the editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. He’s also the founder of SinglePayerAction.org and editor of the website Morgan County U.S.A. He joins us now from West Virginia.
Thanks for being with us, Russell.
RUSSELL MOKHIBER, EDITOR, CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER: Think you for having me, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So, Russell, tell us what you know so far about the cause of the accident. Also, what do we know about the company, Freedom Industries, which runs the facility?
MOKHIBER: Well, this was a toxic chemical used to process coal. It was being stored on the banks of the Elk River at this company’s facility, Freedom Industries. We don’t know exactly what happened, but thousands of gallons of this leaked into the river.
Downstream was the West Virginia American Water Works plant. The chemical went downstream about a mile and a half, was taken in by the intake and sent out to 300,000 people through their drinking water. The company–so those 300,000 people–you know, the company put a no-use order in five days ago. Those 300,000 people have been without drinking water, without showers. Many people who could afford it got out of the Charleston area, went to Morgantown, came east. But the vast majority of those people can’t afford to get out. And so they’re suffering, they’re suffering without water, except for the water that’s being brought in, the drinking water that’s being brought in.
Now they’re starting–today they’re starting to lift–they’re starting to flush out the system. They say they have the chemical down to below one part per million, which they say is a safe level, although I heard an interview with the spokesperson for the water company today, and she was asked, you can still smell this. You know, a lot of people are still smelling it. It’s got this licorice smell. How can it be safe if you can smell it? And she says, we’ve been told by the CDC that one part per million is safe.
So the question is: how did this happen? How did a facility a mile and a half upstream from the drinking water plant that gets drinking water to 300,000 people have this leak happen? And the answer is: in my mind it’s the coal and chemical industry in this state has fostered a culture of deregulation. They’ve captured the major institutions in the state, including the major media, except for The Charleston Gazette, which is doing an incredible job reporting on this. The major university systems, both political parties, are beholden to big coal and to the chemical industry.
And the result was predictable. And we’ve seen this over and over again with these kinds of disasters–in April 2010, the Massey Upper Big Branch explosion, Massey Energy mine, that killed 29 workers. And the Labor Department report found, you know, hundreds of violations.
Obviously, the companies aren’t taking the violations seriously, ’cause if they were, they would clean up their act.
So we need in this state to upend the control, the corporate control of the institutions and bring back a sense of law and order for corporate West Virginia.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. And I’m glad that you asked that question as to why was this able to happen. I mean, people are asking: why was the storage facility located so close to the river in the first place? You have critics, including two U.S. congressman, saying the spill exposes gaps in the U.S. chemical control laws. But you seem to be saying that a lot of these politicians are in the pockets of this industry. Can you talk a little bit more about this relationship?
MOKHIBER: Well, absolutely. For example, in the 2nd Congressional District, which is one of the largest congressional districts in the country–goes all the way from, you know, the Eastern Panhandle, where I am, to the Ohio border at the other side of the state, which includes Charleston–the presumptive nominee for Congress for the Democrats is Nick Casey, who was a former lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce. And that’s the Democrat. The Republicans have ten, you know, corporate candidates in the primary. So it’s going to be a race between two corporate candidates representing this district.
Unless–you know, we’re running a slate of candidates here, led by Ed Rabel, a former CBS newsman who’s running as an independent, who’s running to upend the corporate control on our state. And so that gives us hope. And also there’s about–you know, there’s going to be a slate of independent candidates running for the House of Delegates, which is the lower house in the West Virginia legislature. So people are starting to push back.
People are angry. People are really angry there. I was listening to talk radio today. People are going up against the right-wing radio host and saying, you’re the guys who kept making regulation a bad word, making law and order for corporations a bad term, and you guys are fostering deregulation. Now, of course, they’re on their heels now because of this disaster and because people are angry, and they’re talking about, you know, what laws have to be passed in the legislature to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
But they’re starting to be–you’re seeing signs of of a mini uprising. And the question is: can that be funneled into true political change so we can move away from a culture of deregulation, from a culture of coal is king, and shift the economy to a cleaner economy, a safer economy, an economy that helps the people of the state?
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Russell Mokhiber, thank you so much for joining us.
MOKHIBER: Thank you, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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