Wednesday, January 22, 2014

West Virginia spill reminds us that most chemicals come under relatively little regulation

The chemical spill two weeks ago in West Virginia that caused thousands of gallons of a coal cleaner to enter a regional water supply has garnered much attention and "raised plenty of questions about the way the United States regulates industrial compounds," Brad Plumer reports for The Washington Post. "The current U.S. law on chemical safety is 37 years old, riddled with exceptions, and widely seen as ineffective." The law has only banned five dangerous substances and none since 1991, even though there are more than 84,000 chemicals in the U.S.

The pollutant was crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. "MCHM is a chemical compound used at coal-processing plants to separate fine particles of coal from the surrounding rock in a process called 'froth flotation,'" Plumer writes. "It is mainly used to process coking coal for metallurgy rather than steam coal for power plants. Information is murky about its health effects. The U.S. government doesn't require any testing for the chemical: MCHM was one of 62,000 industrial compounds that were grandfathered in with the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. (The chemicals were grandfathered, in part because they'd been around for awhile and were assumed to be safe.) Current regulations require little testing for new industrial compounds and none for the 62,000 chemicals that were grandfathered in back in 1976." Each state has its own procedures for inspections.

Currently, there are two reform bills floating around, one favored by industry and one favored by environmentalists, prospectively titled the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 and the Safe Chemicals Act. "Under current law, the Environmental Protection Agency can only call for testing of a chemical if evidence surfaces that the substance is dangerous, Plumer notes. Under the first bill, "EPA would review all actively used chemicals and label them as either 'high' or 'low' priority based on their potential risk to human health and the environment. The agency would then subject high-priority chemicals to further review. The EPA would also have greater flexibility to request data from companies and take action on chemicals deemed unsafe, from labeling requirements to outright bans." The second bill, favored by environmental lobbies, "would require manufacturers to prove that chemicals are safe before they can be sold. That could include MCHM and other chemicals grandfathered in under the 1976 law." (Read more)

Plumer also points out who he thinks are the best reporters who have written about the incident, naming first Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette, who "has been doing indispensable reporting on the spill." Ward is a source we often look to, and one readers should keep an eye on when seeking out stories concerning community issues. For more on Ward, go to the Gazette, or to Ward's blog, Coal Tattoo

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