Economic Inequality and Chemical Spills

4-methylcyclohexylmethanolI haven’t written much if anything about the West Virginia chemical spill. That isn’t because I’m not interested in it. I haven’t been covering much politics for the last couple of weeks. Or much of anything else. But Reed Richardson wrote a great article on the coverage of the spill, or lack thereof, Let Them Drink Coke: The Mainstream Media’s Casual Incuriosity of the West Virginia Chemical Spill. In it, he explains the main reasons that the story hasn’t gotten more attention is the laziness of the national media.

Rather than report the story, they just report the political reactions to the story. But in West Virginia, even the Democrats are afraid of saying anything that might upset the coal industry. If the Democrats and Republicans agree on this spill, it must just be an unfortunate accident like a tornado. Sure, you cover it, but there’s no long term story there. The problem is that there is a story here. And as bad as this is for the people (And environment!) of West Virginia, the story is much bigger than even that.

John Boehner claims that we have enough regulations on the books and then has a temerity to ask, “Why wasn’t this plant inspected since 1991?” Well, I’ve got one reason for you: the government doesn’t spend enough money to pay people to do the necessary inspections. And this is because of people like John Boehner who know it is hard to repeal regulations, but it is easy to deprive agencies of the money they need to perform their mandated duties. In fact, most Republicans would eliminate the entire EPA if they could. And they’ve been gunning for the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. (Note: the Clean Water Act was passed under a Republican; the Clean Air Act was greatly expanded under two different Republican presidents.)

But I can hear the conservative cry foul, “But the government just doesn’t have the money to properly regulate!” And, “The private sector can’t afford to clean up their act when the economy is weak!” Both of these statements are exactly the opposite of the truth. The government can now borrow money at no cost. Thus, it should be borrowing money to clean up the nation and repair and expand infrastructure. And do you know what? That would stimulate the economy. As for the second claim, the economy is bad for workers. Business is doing better than ever. Now is the time they can afford to clean up their acts. And do you know what? That would stimulate the economy, because it would force the rich who are just sitting on piles of cash to actually spend some of it. This is not rocket science, folks; this is Econ 101.

Boehner’s question is an excellent example of conservative double speak. On the one hand, he wants to claim that this wasn’t the fault of Freedom Industries; it was the government’s fault for not doing its job. (You know, the job John Boehner actually thinks the government shouldn’t be doing?) On the other hand, conservatives (not John Boehner specifically) usually think that if left alone, businesses will do the right thing. They say things like, “Why would they pollute half a state? That just costs them money!” (The answer is that not doing any maintenance for 23 years saved them far more than any clean-up or punitive costs this spill will cost.) Well, my conservative friends, you can’t have it both ways. Either Freedom Industries is totally to blame here or we need to properly fund our government’s regulatory systems.

Richardson makes another great point about the spill:

For instance, it’s no accident that Wall Street Journal reporters started poking around the Christie Bridgegate scandal not long after a few Journal editors got stuck in the Fort Lee traffic on their way into work. One wonders what kind of wall-to-wall coverage that same size chemical spill might have enjoyed if it had shut down the water in a tony neighborhood like Georgetown or the Upper East Side.

The only state that has poorer people on average than West Virginia is Mississippi. Richardson complains when the Washington Post compared life in West Virginia to “camping,” writing, “What is happening in West Virginia is not at all like camping, it’s more like a taste of the Third World, where the powerful behave recklessly and leave the poor to suffer the consequences.” And that, in the end, is what it is all about. In the coverage of Hurricane Sandy, there were lots of stories of middle class people (none of truly poor people that I remember), because they were close by to the rich who really matter. West Virginia is not exactly a Mecca for the beau monde.

To me, the West Virginia chemical spill story is yet another story about income inequality. It’s all about economics. As I always point out, although I am a liberal on pretty much all issues, I don’t especially care about anything but the economic issues. If we lived in a reasonably equitable country, we would be doing something about global warming. We wouldn’t be treating coal with 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol to make it “clean.” We would be revitalizing West Virginia so that it’s people could be doing something that is not destroying the planet. Of course, Freedom Industries itself is a fairly small company with about 40 employees and roughly $5 million in profits each year. But it only exists because of far bigger and more profitable coal companies. The huge profits provide great incentives to create externalities. And the huge profits provide great political power to make sure that when tens of thousands of people are harmed by those externalities, nothing costly is ever done to these power elites.

And as Reed Richardson notes: that includes even having the stories properly covered by the national media.


The local press continues to provide good coverage. This morning’s news, Pregnant? Bottled Water Recommended. As of Friday, the concentration of the chemical was at 2 ppm. As of today, it seems to be below 1 ppm, which the CDC claims is safe. But they say if a woman is pregnant, it is best that they wait until the concentration is below detectable levels. Regardless, many people question this 1 ppm level, being as it is based on very little study. The US Navy laboratory at Norfolk Naval Air Station, Norfolk, VA says the only safe level is less than 0.057 ppm.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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