Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Not a Drop to Drink

"The water crisis started Thursday, when a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a Freedom Industries plant into the nearby Elk River. Complaints came in to West Virginia American Water about the odor, and officials discovered that the source was the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that spilled out of a 40,000-gallon tank." - West Virginia Water Crisis Eases in SpotsPittsburgh Post-Gazette

>> The name of the lackadaisical poison-leakers in question, Freedom Industries, speaks for itself about the kind of what-happens-to-the-American-Dream-deferred state of play in West Virginia. This is form overtaking function - the most cliche and hollow name for a company whose terrifying utility value is the plausibly deniable holding and distributing of chemicals widely regarded as "dirty" on behalf of a very dirty industry. So plausible, in fact, that the state itself hadn't visited their factory since the early 1990s, and was not even particularly aware that they were a company that held chemicals.

>> Unlike the heinous behavior of various robber barons, mountain top removers, and other titans of industry, this is a robust example of the kind of rampant and egalitarian capitalism 2014 deserves. This is subcontractor behavior, so far from the actual money and the beholden-to-standards-boards industrial activities as to be, not exactly the power behind the throne, but the sort of background noise of outsourcing upon which that entire industry hinges. In any case, Freedom Industries is so much a product of ultra-capitalism as to be fundamentally unregulatable. The promulgation of sub-industries can always, always occur faster than the Man can catch up.

>> This is SOP in West Virginia, a state that is defined by two mostly-opposing forces: wealth extraction and intense rural poverty. I have a great liking for the actual people of West Virginia, and a great mistrust of anyone there with capital, because they are obviously from out-of-state. Money doesn't come to West Virginia without a good value proposition. The long term population are, of course, the long-suffering externalities of two hundred years of such adventurous capitalist equations.

>> What we have here is the kind of perverse incentives that cause builders to dump waste materials in abandoned lots - a lack of localized care. The on-the-ground action of the industry is far from the eyes of those who it might affect, far from the eyes of those who are paying the bills, and far from the eyes of regulators and others in the oversight business. The only people in a position to notice the aging tank were the ones who worked for Freedom Industries itself, and I imagine that the pay scales that far down the supply chain don't really inveigh one to earth stewardship.

>> As for Pittsburgh's role in all this, well, here's a map of all the rivers that flow into the Mississippi:

>> Pittsburgh is at the far eastern edge of that map, but we are certainly part of it. The rolling semi-Appalachian hills around Charleston are of a kin to our own. The heavy industry in that part of the world is, in fact, part of our own industrial supply chains. We are the benefactors of two separate river systems, and the potential for us to be affected by similar situations grows in direct proportion to the extent to which the Commonwealth models itself after West Virginia's regulatory system.

>> Two callers to today's Essential Pittsburgh broadcast discussed, for the benefit of our new Health Department Director, the merits and demerits to public health of transporting hydraulic fracturing waste fluids by barge, train, or truck, and the potential for any of those transport methods to fail, the fluids to hit the rivers, and a similar crisis to occur. The second caller noted that one needs to be rational about making such choices - double-walled barges, to his mind, were a far more safe transport method than single-walled train cars.

>> The question of greater rationality here is this: In a region defined by the waterways that connect it and give it life, why are we investing in systems whose end products include water-soluble poisons? They aren't an error, or an accidental and occasional fluke. They are something that we have designed in.

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