In Our View: Chemical Reaction

Tainted water in W. Va. latest example of need for increased regulation

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Anybody who doubts the need for strong environmental regulations and diligent enforcement need only look at a recent chemical spill in West Virginia. When some 300,000 residents were left without a usable water supply following a Jan. 9 incident, it raised questions about how the United States monitors and regulates potentially hazardous chemicals.

Let's start with the basics: A steel storage tank near Charleston, W. Va., owned by Freedom Industries, developed a one-inch hole through which 4-methylcyclohexane methanol began leaking. The chemical was soon seeping into the Elk River, less than two miles upstream of a water-treatment center that serves the area around Charleston, the state's capital and largest city. People were left without water for drinking, cooking, washing, and various other necessities of life. A few days later, regulators lifted the ban on drinking the water, but then they came back and said pregnant women should avoid it.And while the incident served as a reminder — as if one was necessary — of the importance of a potable water supply, it also pointed out some holes in how chemicals are regulated. According to The Washington Post, there are more than 84,000 industrial compounds in the United States (MCHM is used for scrubbing impurities from coal so that it burns more cleanly), yet the current federal law on chemical safety is "37 years old, riddled with exceptions, and widely seen as ineffective." The federal government has required testing for only 200 chemicals in the past 37 years and has not banned any substances considered dangerous since asbestos in 1991.

Because of that, little was known about MCHM and its impact on humans when the substance found its way into the water supply; it is one of 62,000 industrial compounds that were grandfathered into the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, and the only information about it came from relatively minor tests performed by its manufacturer in the late 1990s. Add that to West Virginia's notoriously lax environmental enforcement and the fact that the substance was being stored in 60-year-old tanks within range of the state's water supply, and disaster seemed inevitable.

West Virginia's tradition of heavy industry and a coal-based economy along with haphazard enforcement (the Charleston site had not been inspected since 2001) makes it more susceptible than other states when it comes to environmental disasters. But that doesn't mean that other states are immune.

With that in mind, it is past time for the federal government to strengthen its regulation of industrial chemicals. One bill proposed last year — The Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 — would have the Environmental Protection Agency review all actively used chemicals and subject those deemed most dangerous to further review. That bill is supported by the American Chemistry Council. Another proposal — The Safe Chemicals Act — would create a much stricter testing regime that includes all industrial chemicals, and is supported by environmental groups.

We'll leave it to Congress to debate the merits of the competing proposals and decide which is more reasonable for industry yet effective for consumers. Clearly, however, the manner in which industrial chemicals are regulated is in need of some updating. This month, the issue was MCHM and West Virginia; next time it could be some other compound in our own backyard.