Monday, January 13, 2014

Who Put the F in REEDOM?

The recent chemical spill in West Virginia -- the one that's keeping more than 300,000 from their drinking water -- was caused by a company called Freedom Industries, which produces "specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries."

"As much as 5,000 gallons (18,927 liters) of industrial chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or Crude MCHM, leaked into the river on Thursday," according to officials quoted by Reuters. Symptoms of poisoning from the chemical include vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, rashes and reddened skin.

And check out the logo for Freedom Industries:

That design sure sets my mind at ease about their patriotism, if not their competence.


The Guardian's Ana Marie Cox argues the West Virginia spill should be bigger news than the Chris Christie bridge scandal.

There's no compelling narrative, no unfolding drama, no whodunit to solve, and catastrophic environmental destruction in West Virginia, on an even larger scale than the nine counties affected by the spill, is old news. The state harvested its entire 10m acres of virgin forest between 1870 and 1920. In the past 50 years, mountaintop-removal mining has made over 300,000 acres of unfit for economically productive use, and the clean water supply has been systematically reduced by 20% in the last 25.

I suspect there's a more subtle yet uglier motivation in how the New Jersey story beguiles us even as West Virginia toxifies.

Bridgegate as we understand it right now in no way asks us to take a look at our own lives or behavior. The questions people have about the Fort Lee lane closures take as a given that people should be able to drive to and from work minimal interference; we want to get to the bottom of "why the traffic was held up for hours?" but not, "Why are there so many people driving?"

That people identify with the drivers ("that could happen to me") and see the West Virginia chemical draught as a merely a terrible misfortune ("those poor folks") illustrates why dust-ups like Bridgegate decide elections but environmental issues continue to lag far behind as an issue voters care about, despite the growing urgency to combat climate change. We can personalize a scandal, but the effects of environmental damage happen to other people – the people of West Virginia, to be specific.

Because make no mistake: our country's national habits are at the heart of West Virginia's regional tragedy – perhaps even this specific one. As coal production has shifted away from the Appalachians to Wyoming and the plains....West Virginia politicians have become increasingly desperate to make their state as attractive as possible to industry. In that context, that state authorities knew about Freedom Industries' massive stockpile of MCMH as long ago as last year and did nothing about it makes sense.

Compared to the systematic devastation of an entire region's environment, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" seems like the petty feud that it was.

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