Russell Mokhiber: Privately-owned water company failed to conduct proper water tests in Elk River, leading to sickness among WV Residents
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
On January 9, a toxic chemical spill into West Virginia’s Elk River from a storage facility for chemicals used to process coal cut off the water supply to more than 300,000 local residents. Since then, local residents were told that the water was safe to drink, which resulted in hundreds of people becoming ill. This week it was also revealed that another chemical was also present in the water that had not been previously reported.
With us to discuss the recent ongoing crisis is Russell Mokhiber. He’s the editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, and he’s also the founder of SinglePayerAction.org. And he also lives in West Virginia.
Thanks for joining us, Russell.
RUSSELL MOKHIBER, EDITOR, CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER: Thank you, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So, Russell, can you just bring us up to date? The chemical leak that was first reported was called MCHM, which is used to treat coal, as I mentioned. And now we’re hearing about another chemical being present, PH. How is it possible that we’re just hearing about this other chemical being in the water supply?
MOKHIBER: That’s what everybody here in West Virginia is asking today. We don’t know how that’s possible. We don’t know how it’s possible that Freedom Industries leaked 7,500 gallons of this, at least, into the Elk River, contaminating the water of 300,000 people.
What we know is that it leaked on January 9, that a do not use order was put in that lasted till the 13th. Then it was gradually lifted till everybody was told it was okay to use it on the 18th, based on studies that said one part per million was safe. And when it lifted, the number of admissions into the hospital started increasing dramatically, ’cause people were drinking water they were told was safe that apparently wasn’t safe. Laura Jordan, the spokeswoman for the water company, the privately held water company, told reporters that just because the water smells doesn’t mean it’s not safe to drink. So the people were getting the message that the water is safe based on studies of one of the many chemicals in this [incompr.] And a couple of days after [incompr.] it’s safe to drink, the CDC said, uh, pregnant women shouldn’t drink it; pediatricians said, uh, children shouldn’t drink it. So the whole–it was a difficult situation, no doubt, but the whole handling of this has been a disgrace and a disaster for the people of the Charleston area.
But the bottom line is that the company is responsible, Freedom Industries. The privately held water company is responsible for not taking seriously its upstream risks and going upstream and enforcing a watershed assessment plan to determine what the risks were and to make sure that they were manageable and under control. And the political apparatus in West Virginia is responsible for taking money from the owners of these facilities to mouth a deregulation dogma that led to this crisis.
DESVARIEUX: So I’m glad that you mentioned the water companies and their responsibility in all of this, because critics are really saying that West Virginia having a privatized water system, it actually enhanced the crisis. There was more pressure to turn on the taps even though the water wasn’t safe, as we’re seeing now, to drink. It wasn’t potable.
So what do you make of this? Do you see privatization of water supply being at the heart of this as well?
MOKHIBER: It’s a hot topic among people who work in the drinking water utility industry. The vast majority of drinking water utilities are publicly held, are public water companies. This one is privately held. And people tell me that executives at public drinking water utilities, their job is to ensure the safety of their customers. And they spent a lot of time looking at the upstream risks and meeting with people from those nuclear and chemical facilities and walking through the plants to make sure those risks are under control.
And a big question here is whether this water company, this privately held water company took those risks seriously. We couldn’t find–we still haven’t found a watershed assessment plan that this company did, and it’s really unclear whether they ever visited this facility to see what the risks were at this facility, which was just a mile and a half upstream. So there is real liability against the water company.
But more importantly is Freedom Industries. And what we found out recently: that it’s owned by a gentleman named James Clifford Forrest III, who lives in a wealthy suburb of Pittsburgh and who has been donating money to politicians in West Virginia who are pushing a deregulatory line. So we have not only pollution of the Charleston area drinking water, but we have corruption of the politics by the same company.
DESVARIEUX: And, Russell, another emerging issue is that so little is really known about the safety of the chemical MCHM. And officials actually backtracked on whether or not the water was safe to drink and so on and so forth. A recent Washington Post article noted that there are more than 80,000 chemicals in the United States cataloged by government regulators, and the health risks for most of them are unknown. What do you make of this?
MOKHIBER: Well, we’re now facing and the people of Charleston are now facing the results of that deregulation, the fact that the industry has all the information and the government is playing catch-up. So still the people know very little about how much was dumped into this river, what was dumped into this river. Just, as you say, yesterday, information was released about another chemical that was in the mix. And before that information was released about that other chemical, apparently this crude MCHM is a combination of six or seven chemicals, and in determining what the safe level was, the one part per million, the CDC only looked at one of those chemicals and not the others. So the government’s way behind in terms of the information, in terms of processing the information, and in terms of protecting the public.
So there’s a lot of levels here, but most prominently is the whole question of deregulation, ’cause that’s what leads to all of it, the failure to criminally prosecute the wrongdoing. It’s historically in West Virginia. The failure to regulate so that these kinds of things don’t happen. The failure to get on top of the chemical industry, which has the politicians in their pockets.
So the bottom line is whether we–there’s a lot of angst. It’s a situation where it could go either way. The question is: can we channel the energy the people are feeling right now into a challenge to the political system in West Virginia that created this culture of deregulation?
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Russell Mokhiber, always a pleasure having you on.
MOKHIBER: Thank you, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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