Day 500: Chemicals, Corporations, Citizens and Consequences

Following a 7,500 gallon chemical spill that left 300,000 people without drinkable tap water for five days, West Virginia Gov. Earl Tomblin announced Monday that a nine-county tap water ban would begin to be lifted. The spill spurred a federal emergency declaration, 10 hospital admissions and new scrutiny on industry’s influence over state and federal policy.
To consider the fallout, Salon called up Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council and lecturer for George Washington University. Sass blasted Freedom Industries’ handling of the emergency, called West Virginia “a state that’s not interested in enforcing … state or federal regulations,” and warned that an initially promising bill in Congress could make the situation worse. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
How disturbed are you by what we’re seeing, and how significant a crisis is this?
There’s some particularly troubling aspects of this incident, and then it fits into a larger pattern that’s very dangerous …
One of the things that really disturbs me about this incident is that it was initially identified not by, you know, routine, regular monitoring by the facility itself, Freedom, for leaks and spills, but it was actually reported by the community. Which means that the levels were so high in the air that they were noxious. They were disturbing the community.
And that’s really high air pollution. People were saying they could smell it in the water, and they could smell it in the air. So that’s a real problem … It means the company is not monitoring themselves properly.
And then the second thing was the fact that the company did not alert the community, or the downstream water intake, when they found out. Or let them know what chemical it was.
So here you’ve got all these people being exposed to chemicals at levels that’s actually bothering them, noxious levels, and they’re not being told what they’re exposed to. That’s a problem also for providing medical care for first responders.
The fact that this was first reported by the community – does that suggest that there are other violations that take place, that legally should be reported by companies and aren’t? That we just don’t find out about?
Yeah, that happens a lot. Yes. There’s leaks and spills all the time, unfortunately, and most of them we don’t know about, in lots of different industries, especially involving chemicals … We know that about fracking, about oil and gas fracking: that these things happen much more often than we’d like. On a daily basis. - Salon

The reality is that we have no idea what the effects of our activities on Earth are. We have no idea what kinds of consequences we'll be facing, nor when they may manifest. Most of us don't even know what even the smallest percentage of human activities on Earth consist of - we have no idea what kind of chemicals are being used in what industries. We don't even know what's in our food. What may make it all even worse is that we can't even know if the labels on products are actually a true account of the ingredients in the product. How does one know that the meat you're eating is free range and hormone/antibiotic free? There are so many manufacturers and producers that it is practically impossible to monitor all of their activities all of the time - and it has become more and more clear that the industries have no interest in policing themselves, especially when doing so will cost them money.

At what point will we decide to act? At what point will those people who are driven by ambition and desire for wealth and power realise that a toxic planet means their own demise as well? Sure, when it's some people on the other side of the world, or even just the other side of the country or city, being affected by some chemical disaster it's easy to distance ourselves from it, to just think "shame, those poor fuckers" and then get on with our own lives. For all we know, we have all been exposed to some kind of compound that will cause us to get cancer in 10 years' time - we are those poor fuckers - maybe not right this moment, but we will be.

It would be easy to blame the corporations and the governments, but that doesn't solve anything. We all live here on this planet together - we must all reach a mutually beneficial co-existence agreement. There are lots of proposals and ideas floating around - but maybe that's part of the problem: there are so many different ways people propose to fix the world that our approach is simply too fragmented to have any effect. What also tends to happen is that people get "set in their ways" and refuse to consider the validity of any other idea or opinion but their own. How can we make any difference when we are unable to work together to develop a practical, sustainable way forward?

Too often emotion is used as ammunition against some of the proposals - the character's of the people involved with the proposals are attacked, taking the focus away from the actual proposal and placing it on the person(s) involved - just as an attempt to weaken the proposal in the eyes of the masses. Another technique is using popular opinions and traditions to break down the public image of a proposal, bringing in elements that are simply irrelevant in the larger scheme of things and playing on peoples' fears and judgements. Hateful and spiteful behaviours like this only serve to set us back in the race against the clock (the clock that we have set) to save ourselves from certain doom.