Monday, March 24, 2014

What were the regulatory failures with the MCHM disaster?

A recent issue of Wired magazine features a science blog by Deborah Blum on the toxicity of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM). It is a well-written piece of history and current information by a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. 
Reading the blog made me, as a chemist, feel ashamed of the harms that have been visited upon our society by the chemical industry and those who have made use of chemicals over the past many decades. It would be so easy to simply eschew personal responsibility for the many environmental sins, past and present. After all, what can I, as a resident of the state of Florida, do about a mess that has been made in West Virginia? But that mess, as with many others all over the country, exists because we lack laws, regulations, and enforcement that would have prevented them from occurring. 
We lack those laws and enforcements in part because we chemists, who among all the citizens of this society should be most knowledgeable, have been negligent in our moral obligations to be proactive. We have not made it our business to advocate for stricter regulation of the production and uses of chemicals. Nor have we advocated for more vigorous monitoring and more ardent prosecution at all levels of government of those who put us in harm’s way through practices that pursue profits at the expense of our well-being. Our obligations extend to informing our fellow citizens, through every means available: letters and phone calls to our legislators and to the editor of our local paper, blogs, participation in local environmental group efforts, and so on. But of course, to be informative we must be informed, and that takes commitment. 
Finally, we can and should ask: What is the American Chemical Society doing? Where does it stand? How much of its resources are being deployed to make this a safer world? The answer, I fear, is not much. Again, where is the commitment? 
Theodore L. Brown
Bonita Springs, Fla.
I've been meaning to write on this awhile now, but this letter is a good chance to state my qualms on this approach: where does the moral, legal and/or financial obligations end for chemists, with respect to chemicals that they sell? So far as I can tell, the root causes of the West Virginia disaster (i.e. an entire metropolitan area unable to use its drinking water for um, drinking) were as follows:
  1. The inability of the local municipal water source to be able to filter out MCHM at the water source, or the failure to stop the distribution of MCHM-contaminated water from the plant in time.
  2. The siting of a municipal water source downstream from a tank farm, or the placement of a tank farm upstream from a municipal water source. (whichever came first)
  3. The failure of secondary containment efforts at Freedom Industries. 
  4. The failure of the primary MCHM tank. 
There's a lot of governmental regulatory failure in #2, #3 and #4. It seems to me that the West Virginia environmental regulatory folks should have noted Freedom's lack of secondary containment*. Freedom Industries is likely responsible for the apparent poor state of their tanks -- I wonder if those tanks have ever been pressure checked or what the preventative maintenance logs look like. 

It seems to me that chemists should not be responsible for operations failures or business failures or local regulatory failures (I'll bet that ACS policy statements are a lot stronger on industry regulation than their industrial members would like.) I think it's pretty clear that chemists should be responsible for toxicity issues and the environmental fate of products when used as intended. (Of course, there are problems with that absolution of liability, too.)

I think I'm missing Professor Brown's point, but I guess I don't know where the American Chemical Society can really have influence over these situations, especially the West Virginia one. 

*I have yet to see industry sources say anything about what the secondary containment requirements of tank farms are. The silence of industrial engineering types on the failures of Freedom Industries is pretty deafening. 


  1. I would offer the following counterpoints from the regulators' POV:

    1. The ability to regulate any industry is directly related to the statutes passed by legislators at all levels. Nowadays, legislation isn't written in the interest of public safety so much as it is written to allow industry the leeway necessary to maximize profits. I would chalk this up to lobbying and other special interest groups that write legislation for elected official to bring to the floor for a vote, and the same groups preventing updated rules from being considered. For example, the mining industry is regulated by laws passed in the early '70s. Prepackaged legislation isn't something commonly seen in headlines, but has been in a few spotlight stories.

    2. Legislators are not motivated to properly update/improve oversight and regulation because it doesn't get them votes. The news media spins any attempts into headlines that read, "New regulation threatens job growth." This is compounded by the general public's blissful ignorance of exactly what their industrial neighbors are doing. The only exceptions are when accidents like this MCHM spill, the coal ash spill in NC, the Upper Big Branch disaster, and other similar situations that make for splashy headlines. Then there's a sudden big push to try and fix things, but there are two sides to the fix. Industry typically only wants minimal new rules. The public (I would like to think) wants the whole system corrected, but the public's collective attention span is only as long as the headlines are able to catch their attention. Industry throws money at legislators, and patiently waits for the public spotlight storm to pass.

    3. Beyond #1, the ability of any agency to regulate even outdated laws is based on the funds available for man power. I'll point to the budget cuts to the NC DEQ by the governor, and current pressures to shrink the government work force and agency budgets from the federal level down to local cities. Having good regulatory oversight, but not giving people the money needed to get the job done is a Catch-22.

    1. I actually agree that, broadly speaking, regulatory agencies have insufficient manpower for effective oversight and enforcement. It's a mess.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20