Officials don't know how many storage tanks there are or how many spills have occurred.
On Jan. 10, 300,000 West Virginians discovered that they could no longer drink their tap water, cook with it, brush their teeth or take a bath. Hotels and restaurants closed. Residents scoured stores for bottled water. And more than 400 were treated at emergency rooms.
A little-known toxic chemical with a tongue-twisting name — 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM — had leaked from a storage tank into the Elk River, tainting the water supply for nine counties, including the state's largest city, Charleston.
Five weeks later, the "do not use" order is long gone. But the cleanup grinds on. Some water still has a licorice-like smell, and residents remain wary. On Monday, an elementary school in North Charleston closed early after teachers complained of the telltale odor and headaches.
The Charleston accident has exposed huge gaps in rules to protect the public from potentially toxic substances, not just in West Virginia but elsewhere in the USA.
ANOTHER VIEW: Update chemical regulation
Under existing law, federal authorities have had to rely on whatever manufacturers choose to tell them about many of the chemicals they produce. Officials don't know how many storage tanks there are across the nation or how many spills have occurred.
At a minimum, the tanks should have been built to high standards. But federal rules — which regulate the storage of oil — set no requirements for most chemical tanks. And while some states do, West Virginia isn't one of them.
Once a leak is discovered, authorities are often hard-pressed to figure out how dangerous a chemical is. "There are so many gaps on toxicity ... no one can say with acceptable certainty what a safe level is," says Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which is investigating the leak.
To understand just how weak the 1976 federal law on chemicals is, consider this: In the past 30 years, regulators have issued controls on five of 62,000 chemicals on the U.S. inventory. Even the industry agrees the law needs to be updated.
Since the West Virginia spill, a bipartisan rewrite of the law has gained support. It would be an improvement in some areas. But it could also create new gaps if the chemical industry, which has contributed nearly $138 million to lawmakers and political parties since 1990, waters it down on Capitol Hill.
Any new law needs to set deadlines for the government to reassess potentially toxic chemicals, restrict the most dangerous ones and ensure that manufacturers turn over all the vital data, not just what they feel like.
States are better situated to set standards for strong tanks, inspect them and make sure they aren't placed in vulnerable locations like the one in Charleston, which was along the banks of a river 1.5 miles upstream from the city's water supply. Contra Costa, Calif., has cut accidents since creating an inspection program paid for by industry fees.
Storage terminals exist in every state, so devastating spills are certain to occur, unless government and industry act on the lessons of Charleston.
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