Zuckett: Weak regulations turned my town into involuntary guinea pig

Like most Americans, I always took the clean water running out of my tap for granted. That changed in January, when West Virginia American Water (WVAW) sent out an all points alert to stop drinking, cooking, washing, or doing anything else with the H₂O flowing into my home, except flush the toilet.

Gary Zuckett OtherWords

Gary Zuckett

Thus began the biggest fouling of a public water supply in our nation’s history. Thanks to the negligence of Freedom Industries — a supplier of chemicals to the coal industry — all schools, restaurants, hotels, and other public facilities in our nine-county region closed immediately.

State lawmakers, who had just started the legislative session in Charleston, were sent home from the capital city. Many businesses didn’t open their doors again for a full week and then had to post “we use bottled water” signs in their windows to lure their customers back.

Everyone in my community had become water refugees.

Six months later, here in Charleston, we’re still dealing with the spill’s aftermath. We’ve come to realize that clean tap water is a precious commodity.

This is more than a problem afflicting one in six West Virginia residents. It’s a national health issue that could harm any of our 54,000 public water supply systems.

A recent National Geographic article catalogues various ways our public drinking water sources are threatened. The perils include coal ash from utilities, farm feedlot waste lagoons, oil pipelines, and motor or rail transport of oil and other chemicals.

The other national issue this disaster underlines is the legacy of the Toxic Substances Control Act. When Congress passed the law in 1976 to regulate chemicals, the government grandfathered 62,000 chemicals already in use at that time — exempting them from regulations imposed on new potential toxins. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, less than 200 of these chemicals have been tested for human safety. The government has only banned five in the past 24 years.

The chemical that ended up providing that “licorice” smell coming out of my showerhead, called MCHM, is on that list of 62,000 exempted and untested. No one has a clue what long-term effects my family and the rest of us exposed before, during and after the crisis, will face.

Thanks to these weak regulations, we’ve turned into involuntary guinea pigs in an enormous science experiment.

Jason Myer, a Charleston filmmaker, is marketing “test subject” T-shirts emblazoned with the symbol for MCHM. Proceeds will fund a documentary he’s making about the spill and its impact on our lives.

Other states need to take heed of what’s going on in West Virginia. This should be a wakeup call that gets them to look around and assess the potential for the same kind of disaster in their own backyards.

The estimated 10,000 gallons of MCHM that spilled here comprise about the same volume of that poison as one large semi tanker truck totes around. A similar accident could happen anywhere.

You’d hope that Congress would act to be sure that more Americans don’t become unwilling test subjects. But according to the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, which is fighting for stricter regulations on these chemicals, you would be wrong.

In the House, Republican leaders want to keep its chemical industry campaign donors happy and generous. The Senate is struggling with competing industry and consumer bills.

We can’t let them carry on like this. And the “it can’t happen here” mentality must go. These chemicals are everywhere — traveling down our highways, rails, rivers, and pipelines. They’re being stored in old tanks up the river from lots of population centers, not just in West Virginia.

Don’t let this happen in your state. We don’t need a bigger market for “test subject” t-shirts.

Gary Zuckett is the executive director of WV Citizen Action Group, a consumer watchdog and environmental justice organization.

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