Sunday, January 12, 2014

What We Must Learn from the Elk River Mess

There is this town in West Virginia. It's called Charleston and it has been built up along the banks of the Elk River. This river is currently among other things a source of domestic water for some three hundred thousand people in a nine county area of West Virginia. It is also a source of income in the area as a result of just being a river. In pre-EPA days it also served as a sewer in which to dispose of all sorts of unwanted things. You name it and the river took it away for you. The coal-mining companies and their support industries dominate the economy and the politics of the area. There is very little local regulation of those core industries. The lion's share of regulation probably comes out of investigations undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency was created during the presidency of Richard Nixon. This agency (which actually has Cabinet rank) is the same EPA the current GOP caucus in the House of Representatives have vowed to close down. God help the people of WV because their local politicians and pretty much the entirety of their congress critters aren't going to be of much help.
A company called Freedom Industries operates a coal-field services company in Charleston. When you think of coal-field think oil-field as in oil-field services company like Halliburton Industries and its former CEO Dick Cheney. Among all the other things it owns on its campus along the Elk River is at least one storage vessel containing chemicals used in the mining of and/or treatment of coal extracted in the area. It contains perhaps a hundred thousand gallons of something I am going to call methylethyl bad shit. I am calling it that or MEBS because the exact nature of the chemicals used in many operations in the energy industry generally are regarded as protectable property interests. They are called trade secrets. So as a result we really probably won't find out what exactly has been flowing out of that tank into the Elk River. My point is simply that no one really knows what is stored in that tank. The problem of course is that somewhere around 7500 gallons of what I call MEBS and the industry calls a trade secret have leaked from that tank over an unknown period of time and into the passing Elk River. As a result of this catastrophe the domestic water supply for the surrounding nine county area has been shut down
Local domestic water service is provided by an entity calling itself West Virginia American Water. This company is owned/controlled by a for-profit corporation traded on the NYSE under the ticker symbol AWK. It is a large company and provides water service in 30 of the 50 states of the union and in parts of Canada. It even claims to have facilities in California. It is the largest for profit water and wastewater facility in the US. Its name is American Water. According to its website it engages in “regulated activities” which I assume is the manufacture, storage and delivery of water for whatever use its customers want to make of it. It also has something it calls “market based” activities. I am not even sure I want to know what those are. Perhaps American Water *AWK” is moving into the medical marijuana business. Who knows? I will admit that as a four term veteran of the governing board of a publicly owned water utility that I have a bias against privately owned water utilities even if they call themselves publicly traded as does American Water. American Water says it is publicly traded in order make you think you have some say in its policies and operations. The only control you have is the universal choice offered by every monopoly, if you are unhappy “go buy from my competitor.” You can't even 'fire the bastards' at the next election. Frankly stated my position is that essential utilities like power, water, sewer, communications and internet providers are too important to us in this time of our history to be owned by plutocrats whose only concern is the dollar value of their investment.
It seems there has been an intrusion of MEBS into the local water supply which is the river that runs along side the town. Yes the Elk River. Suddenly the powers that be in West Virginia who exercise whatever regulatory powers the dominant industries have endowed them with have decided that the domestic water supply drawn from the river is unsafe for any use whatsoever. Don't drink it. Don't cook with it. Don't bathe with it. Don't let it touch you. It may kill you or make you seriously ill. That's a mouthful for any water purveyor to say even a for profit one like West Virginia American Water.
Water is a public resource without which life could not exist and consequently we as a society have gathered together and created  publicly owned and controlled entities to manufactures, treat, store and distribute water to enable our society to exist and hopefully prosper. It is here to be shared not just by us but by other inhabitants of the planet. It is not here to be fouled by us or anything else including our destructive energy extracting policies tilted in favor of the extractors.. This public resource has been fouled and perhaps even destroyed because of lax profit-driven in-name-only schemes of regulation operating for the benefit of the regulated not for the benefit of us.
Now this great big multi-national water utility is faced with the problem of having to restore dependable, healthy, safe drinking water to 300,000 customers. This is going to be an enormous and enormously expensive operation. The first thing that needs to happen is to determine all the source[s] of the leakage into the Elk River and then stop them. Soil will probably even have to be removed and trucked elsewhere.  Once that is done American Water can begin the process of draining the current storage and delivery facilities affected by the leak and flushing the entire system until such time as contaminants are below specified parts per million. That of course begs the question what are we going to do with the contaminated effluent? Dump it back in the Elk River? That water is going to have to be relocated and effectively dumped in someone else's backyard.
This is going to be a major undertaking and I am sure beyond the resources of West Virginia American Water. Don't expect the parent American Water, the publicly traded NYSE company or any of its subgroups to dig deep to fund this. That is one of the reasons why the legal structures of AWK is so diversified along state lines in order to insulate AWK and its owners from having to dig deep to pick up the tab for cleanups like the Elk River Mess. If all else fails West Virginia American Water can simply file for bankruptcy relief effectively isolating AWK and its other subunits from the Mess in Elk River and walking away. There is an ugly reality staring us in the face and we had better figure out a way to deal with it. If nothing else this critical occurrence in Appalachia shows the need for independent monitoring of industrial uses along critical waterways. It also points the way to the folly that is the privatization of essential utilities. Privatization is a fraud and we need to recognize that. We also need to understand the almost suicidal folly eliminating the EPA is that is now buzzing around the ears of Congress members. All this is learnable from the Elk River Mess.

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