Real Americans don’t need safety nets or government protection, just rugged individualism and immunity to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol poisoning.
A major environmental accident occurred Thursday in West Virginia that should strike a bolt of fear through every American who takes a sip of water. While it is too soon to say what the extent of the damage will be, the consequences are nonetheless revealing for those who argue the government is the source of most of our problems.
But first the details. According to reports, a hole was detected in a 48,000-gallon storage tank at the Freedom Industries coal treatment facility outside Charleston, W. Va. – the state’s capital and largest city. The tank contained the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a wonderful chemical that can pass through the skin or be inhaled, and once so ingested, can over the short term cause irritation of the eyes and respiratory, headaches, and skin rash. In high enough doses, it can damage the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and even cause death.
Located on the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha River which, in turn, flows into the Ohio River, the facility in essence takes in coal from surrounding mines, washes it with water and chemicals, grinds it up, and then ships the prepared coal to power plants and other coal users. The facility also, conveniently, sits just upriver of Charleston’s water-treatment plant, the largest in the Eastern United States. Instantly, via the magic of stupid industrial siting, 300,000 people found themselves without safe water.
So far, no one knows how the hole in the chemical tank got there, but its effects are clear enough. Nine counties have been declared disaster zones and a ‘do not use’ order has been put in place by the local water company and government environmental and disaster agencies. What’s more, residents in the affected area report that a heavy scent of black licorice hangs in the air, and officials say that the only safe way to use the water coming out of the taps is to flush toilets or put out fires.
As for bathing, drinking, and cleaning — well, good luck with that. Reports indicate that local stores have been swamped with people trying to buy water and have quickly run out of supplies. West Virginia sources also report that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been contacted and that President Barack Obama has declared the region a disaster zone and emergency supplies of potable water are on their way. For the moment, though, it looks like tens-of-thousands of people in Charleston and surrounding communities will have to make do with what is locally available. Let’s hope they don’t get too thirsty.
It would seem that such deadly, large-scale industrial accidents have been on something of an uptick lately. In 2010, for instance, there was the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in Montcoal, W. Va., which killed 29. This followed the Sago Mine disaster in 2006 – also in West Virginia — that killed 12. In both instances, the mine and the company running it had a litany of safety concerns and complaints that stretched back years.
Last year, there was the West Texas fertilizer plant explosion that obliterated a large portion of that small town, killed 15, and injured over 150. As in the case of the West Virginia mine disasters, the explosion in Texas was likely due to negligence that allowed too big a buildup of explosive ammonia nitrate at the facility in an unsecure, onsite location.
Then, finally, there was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – an industrial catastrophe of colossal proportions that killed 11 and blanketed much of the Gulf Coast with a toxic stew of oil and chemical dispersants. Once again, company negligence was largely at fault as neither proper safety protocols nor sufficiently safe equipment was either used or readily in place to prevent or contain the wellhead blowout that caused the oil spill.
All of these disasters except the chemical spill yesterday in Charleston, can ultimately be traced back to decisions made by company officials to cut a corner, save a buck, and hope that disaster, if it strikes, does so in the next quarter and to the next guy. While it is early days yet, no doubt the spill that has forced hundreds of businesses to close and caused a run on bottled water will be similarly traced to human negligence and greed, as is almost always the case in such disasters.
What’s interesting here, though, is the degree to which we all end up relying on good government to come to the rescue when these things happen. If the water ban in Charleston goes on for long, the good citizens of that fine city will soon find their thirst being quenched by emergency provisions provided by their local disaster relief agencies, police, firefighters, and national guardsmen. At the Federal level, FEMA can help coordinate relief efforts while providing financial assistance for those affected by the spill. West Virginians may be thirsty now, but they sit safely in the net created by an interlocking system of local, state, and federal government agencies dedicated to public health, welfare, and safety.
Once the immediate disaster is dealt with, law enforcement and regulatory oversight agencies can take the next step by providing an impartial investigation into what caused the chemical spill that poisoned Charleston’s water. Officials will collect data and testimony, weigh the evidence, and hand down judgment accordingly. Long gone are the days when we simply take the word of a company spokesperson that they did “all they could,” or that no one, “could have foreseen” what had happened. Digging up information either through investigation or mandatory disclosure and then weighing the importance of that information is an important service. Without it, trust would wither.
What about preventing such disasters in the future? Well, in theory we could do that through government action. Not all the time, of course – accidents do happen – but enough so as to make disasters such as the ones described above exceedingly rare. To do that, though, we would have to grant a degree of legitimate authority to government regulators and trust them, within limits, to serve as watchdogs of the public good. Indeed, once upon a time in America, we did exactly that.
That was a long time ago, however. Now, such watchdog oversight or relief aid is compared to the Gestapo even as the very idea that something might actually constitute a ‘public good’ is derided as radical Marxism by many who wield power and influence in America today. Tighten safety regulations, you say? Why, that hogwash would only constrict the ability of ‘job creators’ to create low-wage, no-benefits employment in extraordinarily dangerous conditions and workplaces. Soon you’ll be saying that children shouldn’t work, humans cause global warming, or that economic inequality isn’t a sign of God’s love and grace. Those are dangerous thoughts, comrade.
So as you sip your morning coffee or pre-lunch aperitifs, spare a moment for just how lucky the folks in Charleston happen to be. They may not have clean, uncontaminated water to drink, but at least they don’t have the damn government on their backs safeguarding their health and safety. Real Americans don’t need safety nets or government protection, just rugged individualism and, in West Virginia, immunity to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol poisoning. Just remember; that’s not black-licorice fumes you are sniffing – that’s the sweet, toxic smell of liberty.