Some of the more than 300,000 residents of West Virginia who could not drink or bathe in their tap water derived from the Elk River have been told that it is now safe to do so. Considering how flawed the process was for coming up with the standard for a safe level of the contaminant, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), it should come as no surprise that residents are not buying the claim that the water is now safe:
Eric Foster got the call last night. West Virginia American Water said the water at his South Charleston home is safe.
But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to use it again.
“The water smells like licorice, and I don’t really think that’s safe,” Foster said. “I’ll never drink it again.”
Five days after a chemical spill into the Elk River left water unusable for 300,000 West Virginia American Water customers in nine counties, some residents are still wary of using the water even after officials say it’s safe again.
Water company and state officials say the water consistently tested below 1 part per million of the chemical, and have been lifting the water-use ban zone by zone. Six zones, mostly in Charleston and South Charleston, had been lifted as of Tuesday evening.
Here’s a summary of the flawed process for coming to that one part per million “safe” standard:
Unfortunately, the science behind this standard remains unclear. Based on what we do know, there are good reasons to believe that officials are overlooking significant health risks.
We know, for example, that the manufacturer’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that officials say they are using as their primary source lacks any information about chronic health impacts. The major federal databases we consulted suggest such data simply do not exist for this chemical.
It also appears that officials made significant leaps in their calculation of a “safe” exposure level – including assumptions that deviate from generally accepted practices. As a result, these estimates fail to adequately account for either acute or chronic health effects from ongoing exposure to water contaminated at the 1 ppm level.
At a bare minimum, the public deserves to know a lot more about the calculations behind officials’ insistence that a 1 ppm level in drinking water is safe.
But how did we get to this situation in the first place? The event that caused the ongoing contamination of the Elk River was a leak of thousands of gallons of MCHM from a facility owned by a company with the wonderfully Galtian name of Freedom Industries. Of course there is a bald eagle anchoring their website! Would you expect anything else?
How is the chemical used? It is used to perpetuate the myth of “clean coal”. Our government is even a leading crusader for this myth and boasts a nifty gif to show us how coal can be “cleaned”.
One of the main methods of producing “clean coal” is to remove particles of sulfur. From the DOE website with the nifty gif:
Take sulfur, for example. Sulfur is a yellowish substance that exists in tiny amounts in coal. In some coals found in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other eastern states, sulfur makes up from 3 to 10 percent of the weight of coal.
One way is to clean the coal before it arrives at the power plant. One of the ways this is done is by simply crushing the coal into small chunks and washing it. Some of the sulfur that exists in tiny specks in coal (called “pyritic sulfur ” because it is combined with iron to form iron pyrite, otherwise known as “fool’s gold) can be washed out of the coal in this manner. Typically, in one washing process, the coal chunks are fed into a large water-filled tank. The coal floats to the surface while the sulfur impurities sink. There are facilities around the country called “coal preparation plants” that clean coal this way.
John Galt has been a deadly and destructive guy lately, with the largest of his most recent attacks taking place in the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh on April 24 where the death toll has now tragically topped 900 and the fertilizer storage facility explosion in West, Texas on April 17 that miraculously killed only fourteen people but injured over 200 and caused damage that is now estimated to exceed $100 million.
In an interesting development, Bangladesh has shown that at least on some fronts it is more civilized than Texas. Both the building’s owner and the engineer accused of colluding with the owner to add three unregulated floors on top of the building have been arrested, while Texas lawmakers, previously known for their refusal to vote in favor of disaster relief when it was in New York and New Jersey, now have called for socializing the losses in Texas. Of course, since the fertilizer plant owner (who has not been arrested) only carried $1 million in liability insurance (and since Texas doesn’t require liability insurance for many businesses operating with dangerous materials), those losses are bound to be socialized anyway.
From CBS News on the response to the disaster in Bangladesh:
Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith spoke as the government cracked down on those it blamed for the disaster in the Dhaka suburb of Savar. It suspended Savar’s mayor and arrested an engineer who had called for the building’s evacuation last week, but was also accused of helping the owner add three illegal floors to the eight-story structure. The building owner was arrested earlier.
The government appears to be attempting to fend off accusations that it is in part to blame for the tragedy because of weak oversight of the building’s construction.
It looks like Muhith went a bit too far in trying to deflect responsibility from the government:
During a visit to the Indian capital, New Delhi, Muhith said the disaster would not harm Bangladesh’s garment industry, which is by far the country’s biggest source of export income.
“The present difficulties … well, I don’t think it is really serious — it’s an accident,” he said. “And the steps that we have taken in order to make sure that it doesn’t happen, they are quite elaborate and I believe that it will be appreciated by all.”
The article goes on to point out that Muhith had made a similar hollow promise to improve safety conditions several months ago when a fire in a garment factory killed over a hundred workers.
In a tragic testament to the shoddy conditions in these facilities in Bangladesh, we have word this morning of another eight deaths in a fire in a garment factory. However, this time the fire was after hours and it wasn’t workers who were killed: Continue reading
On Thursday, I wrote about the central role that absolute free market libertarianism, as personified by the fictional John Galt, played in the horrific explosion in West, Texas that took the lives of fourteen people, most of whom were volunteer firefighters fighting a fire at an unregulated fertilizer facility. We have now learned that the facility had a checkered history of ignoring regulations and had 1350 times more ammonium nitrate on hand than the amount that triggers a legal requirement to report the facility to Department of Homeland Security. Of course, the facility’s owner chose to ignore that regulation along with the many other regulations he chose to ignore. Sadly, some press accounts of the owner chose to focus more on his role as a church elder (Update: he was even at Bible study when the fire broke out!) than on how his choice to flout regulations and good sense led directly to this tragedy. Whatever the cause of the original fire that eventually triggered the explosion, the plant owner’s decision to maintain such a large and unreported amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate so close to so many people played a huge role in how this tragedy played out.
Those deaths, and their roots in blatant disregard for government regulation in the belief that it harms business, are sadly just a small part of the larger picture of how free marketeers have corrupted the public marketplace of ideas to sow widespread death and destruction so that the “job creators” can go about their usual business of pocketing massive profits while refusing to make microscopic investments in small steps that would save many lives.
Remember the other, larger Massachusetts tragedy that killed at least 50 and injured 722? No? It was discovered last fall that New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Massachusetts had been flaunting the rules on drug manufacturing and in their haste to reap maximum profits shipped out vials of steroids contaminated with fungus. Thousands of patients around the country were injected with contaminated material and deaths and injuries followed.
You would think that since this tragedy played out last fall, the government would have realized the error of letting companies call themselves compounders when they are in reality manufacturing drugs on a large scale. Drug manufacturers are subject rigid FDA standards while compounders are regulated as if they are simple neighborhood pharmacies where the druggist might mix single vials of drugs into a form a local doctor has requested for individualized treatment of a patient. But no, because of massive lobbying on the part of compounders, who have become a huge presence because of the vast sums of money they can earn by working the margins of regulation, lawmakers pocket the proceeds of the lobbying and proclaim themselves powerless to harm the job creators as they bring these products to market. It should be viewed as no surprise then, that a different compounder, this time in Florida, now is recalling all of its products because it has been found to have been shipping product that was contaminated with bacteria. It is not yet known if any patients have been harmed by products from this compounder, but at least today’s article on the recall was able to update the death toll from the Massachusetts compounder to 53.
The Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent search for the perpetrators also was touched by John Galt. Technology has existed for nearly 20 years that can make individual production lots of explosives traceable. But when it came time to implement the technology, the NRA and other gun enthusiasts managed to limit the inclusion of taggants to plastic explosives and to specifically exempt black powder (otherwise known as gunpowder) from being required to be traceable. The Boston bombs used black powder. If investigators had been able to know within hours of the blast where and when the black powder was purchased, would they have been able to arrest the bombers sooner and without the subsequent death of one police officer and near death of another? The full shutdown of Boston on Friday would not have happened if the brothers had been arrested Wednesday or Thursday through tracing the black powder they purchased. But no, John Galt said that gunpowder manufacturers shouldn’t have to spend the extra pennies to tag production lots and the inclusion of taggants in gunpowder infringes the rights of gun owners in a de facto registration of their ammunition, so society has to suffer the consequences of this freedom.
Oh and all that gun freedom. It appears that we have five more gun freedom victims in Seattle today.
John Galt is a very busy guy, sowing death and destruction from one side of the country to the other. But since he continues to make good money, we have to give him his freedom and keep those markets wide open. Praise the lord of the free market and pass the untagged ammunition.
Who needs pesky safety regulations or zoning laws when there is money to made running a fertilizer plant? Sadly, the small Texas town of West, which is just north of Waco, is suffering the consequences of unregulated free enterprise today, as a massive explosion at West Fertilizer has leveled much of the town. Perhaps the only remotely fortunate aspect of this tragedy is that it occurred at 8 pm local time and so West Middle School, which burned after the explosion, was not full of children.
A look at the satellite image above shows the folly of putting “free enterprise” ahead of sensible zoning laws. At almost 20 miles north of Waco, Texas, one thing that is in abundance in the region is open space (I’ve driven past this spot several times in the last two or three years–it’s desolate), and yet this fertilizer plant is immediately adjacent to a large apartment building (see the photo at the top of this article for how that building fared in the explosion) and very close to a middle school. There is no reason at all for any other building to be within two or three miles of a facility that produces material that is so explosive.
The Texas tradition of low taxes is also having an impact on this tragedy. Note this passage in the New York Times account of the disaster:
It began with a smaller fire at the plant, West Fertilizer, just off Interstate 35, about 20 miles north of Waco that was attended by local volunteer firefighters, said United States Representative Bill Flores. “The fire spread and hit some of these tanks that contain chemicals to treat the fertilizer,” Mr. Flores said, “and there was an explosion which caused wide damage.”
That’s right. This fertilizer plant and other businesses in West apparently don’t pay enough in local taxes to support a municipal fire department, and so the first responders to a fire at a fertilizer plant were volunteer firefighters. Sadly, several of these volunteers are now missing:
The town’s volunteer firefighters responded to a call at the plant about 6 p.m., said Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton. Muska was among them, and he and his colleagues were working to evacuate the area around the plant when the blast followed about 50 minutes later. Muska said it knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.
Five or six volunteer firefighters were at the plant fire when the explosion happened, Muska said, and not all have been accounted for.
Ammonium nitrate, one of the most commonly used fertilizers is also highly explosive. It was the primary component of Timothy McVeigh’s bomb that destroyed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Texas, especially, should know of the dangers inherent in fertilizer plants, as this disaster occurs very near the anniversary of the Texas City disaster: Continue reading
The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine yesterday released the results of a study addressing mortality in the United States as compared to other developed nations. The full report can be purchased here, where a summary also can be downloaded as a free pdf file. The press release on the study frames the questions addressed:
On average, Americans die sooner and experience higher rates of disease and injury than people in other high-income countries, says a new report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. The report finds that this health disadvantage exists at all ages from birth to age 75 and that even advantaged Americans — those who have health insurance, college educations, higher incomes, and healthy behaviors — appear to be sicker than their peers in other rich nations.
“We were struck by the gravity of these findings,” said Steven H. Woolf, professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and chair of the panel that wrote the report. “Americans are dying and suffering at rates that we know are unnecessary because people in other high-income countries are living longer lives and enjoying better health. What concerns our panel is why, for decades, we have been slipping behind.”
From the summary, we have this long explanation of the causes of high US mortality, where I have added emphasis:
The panel’s inquiry found multiple likely explanations for the U.S. health disadvantage:
• Health systems. Unlike its peer countries, the United States has a relatively large uninsured population and more limited access to primary care. Americans are more likely to find their health care inaccessible or unaffordable and to report lapses in the quality and safety of care outside of hospitals.
• Health behaviors. Although Americans are currently less likely to smoke and may drink alcohol less heavily than people in peer countries, they consume the most calories per person, have higher rates of drug abuse, are less likely to use seat belts, are involved in more traffic accidents that involve alcohol, and are more likely to use firearms in acts of violence.
• Social and economic conditions. Although the income of Americans is higher on average than in other countries, the United States also has higher levels of poverty (especially child poverty) and income inequality and lower rates of social mobility. Other countries are outpacing the United States in the education of young people, which also affects health. And Americans benefit less from safety net programs that can buffer the negative health effects of poverty and other social disadvantages.
• Physical environments. U.S. communities and the built environment are more likely than those in peer countries to be designed around automobiles, and this may discourage physical activity and contribute to obesity.
No single factor can fully explain the U.S. health disadvantage. Deficiencies in the health care system may worsen illnesses and increase deaths from certain diseases, but they cannot explain the nation’s higher rates of traffic accidents or violence. Similarly, although individual behaviors are clearly important, they do not explain why Americans who do not smoke or are not overweight also appear to have higher rates of disease than similar groups in peer countries.
More likely, the U.S. health disadvantage has multiple causes and involves some combination of inadequate health care, unhealthy behaviors, adverse economic and social conditions, and environmental factors, as well as public policies and social values that shape those conditions.
What stands out to me is that the list of reasons Americans die early overlaps significantly with the social goals of right-wing libertarians who worship Ayn Rand and John Galt. Continue reading
We awake to a changed and battered country this morning. CNN’s headline at CNN.com currently blares “Millions wake to devastation”, while AP gives us a state-by-state rundown of the effects of Hurricane (and then Superstorm) Sandy. At a time, though, when the natural American response is to help one another, we have perhaps the strongest example of what is at stake next Tuesday as we go to the polls for a Presidential election. Here is Mitt Romney in the Republican debate hosted by CNN:
The idea that an “immoral” FEMA should be disbanded in favor of private sector disaster response did not go over well with the editorial staff of the New York Times. From this morning’s editorial:
Over the last two years, Congressional Republicans have forced a 43 percent reduction in the primary FEMA grants that pay for disaster preparedness. Representatives Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and other House Republicans have repeatedly tried to refuse FEMA’s budget requests when disasters are more expensive than predicted, or have demanded that other valuable programs be cut to pay for them. The Ryan budget, which Mr. Romney praised as “an excellent piece of work,” would result in severe cutbacks to the agency, as would the Republican-instigated sequester, which would cut disaster relief by 8.2 percent on top of earlier reductions.
Does Mr. Romney really believe that financially strapped states would do a better job than a properly functioning federal agency? Who would make decisions about where to send federal aid? Or perhaps there would be no federal aid, and every state would bear the burden of billions of dollars in damages. After Mr. Romney’s 2011 remarks recirculated on Monday, his nervous campaign announced that he does not want to abolish FEMA, though he still believes states should be in charge of emergency management. Those in Hurricane Sandy’s path are fortunate that, for now, that ideology has not replaced sound policy.
A common refrain for the Galt crew is that they want to go back to the basics of the Constitution. And yet, here is the Preamble:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The simple truth is that if we wish to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare in the face of such a huge storm, then a Federal agency coordinating the preparations before the storm and the response afterwards is the most efficient plan. Putting disaster capitalists in charge instead would only lead to many more deaths and huge delays in response times.
As the country responds to this terrible blow from the storm, it is worth considering whether we wish to go back to the ineptitude of the Katrina response (or worse) or if we want to work together for the common defense through a properly funded FEMA.