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Corporate Chemical Spills

This is what the “free market” gets you: water that smells like licorice, but you can’t drink, cook or wash your hands with it.

On Jan. 9, the US House of Representatives passed HR 2279, which would gut the nation’s hazardous waste regulations. This bill, called the Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act, would amend both the Solid Waste Disposal Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (commonly known as Superfund). It would remove requirements that the Environmental Protection Agency periodically update and review solid waste disposal regulations, and would make it harder for the government to require companies that deal with hazardous substances to carry enough insurance to cover cleanup. The bill would also require more consultation with states before the government imposes cleanup requirements for Superfund sites — places where hazardous waste is located and could be affecting local people or ecosystems, Kate Sheppard reported at

The bill passed by a vote of 225 to 188, largely along party lines. Four Republicans voted against it, and five Dems voted for it. It was one of many bills the House passed in nearly party-line votes that seek to reduce environmental regulation and it stands virtually no chance of getting through the Democrat-majority Senate.

The environmental group Earthjustice said the bill would gut the Superfund program, which was created in 1980 to ensure that polluting industries pay to clean up hazardous sites. There are currently more than 1,300 sites around the country listed as priority Superfund cleanup sites. Critics say the House bill would delay those efforts and put taxpayers on the hook for future cleanups. A group of 129 environmental and local citizens groups have written to Congress urging the defeat of the bill. The White House already has issued a veto threat.

The same day the Republicans passed that bill gutting federal hazardous waste regs, a chemical spill from Freedom Industries’ tank farm into the Elk River contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people, including the state capital, Charleston, and nine surrounding counties.

Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post columnist with family members who had to flee Charleston, noted that there was little outrage from officials in Washington, who seem to expect West Virginians to take the whole thing in stride. “The bipartisan consensus in the state seems to be: Move along folks, nothing to see here. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, told CNN that he is ‘not going to cast guilt on anybody’ and defended the coal industry. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, told the [Charleston] Gazette she still believes the Environmental Protection Agency is guilty of ‘overreaching.’”

The case began when a poisonous but unregulated chemical leaked out of a Freedom tank and a containment area and into the ground, through which it entered the Elk River just a mile upstream from the intake to the water plant that provides drinking water for Charleston.

“Remarkably, the political elite haven’t taken to heart the most obvious lesson from the spill, which is that vastly tighter oversight of chemical manufacturing and storage is warranted in the public interest,” Michael Hiltzig noted in the Los Angeles Times. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who got $5,000 from a Freedom Industries executive last year, dismissed the very idea of more regulations. “We have enough regulations on the books,” Boehner said. “What the administration ought to be doing is actually doing their jobs. Why wasn’t this plant inspected since 1991?”

That’s a good question, Hiltzig noted, though one that hardly implicates the current administration alone, considering that during the 23 years since plant was last inspected the White House has been in the hands of two Republicans and two Democrats. Boehner, by the way, was first elected to Congress 24 years ago and has been a member of the leadership since 2006.

In fact, federal law leaves much of the responsibility to inspect chemical plants, tank farms and pipelines with state environmental agencies. State regulators last inspected the tank that leaked in 1991, but a state environmental inspector visited the site in 2010 after a complaint about an odor, and found nothing that would cause concern, Randy Huffman, head of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection told CNN Jan. 13.

Inspectors visited the plant again in 2012 to determine whether any processes had changed that would require the company to obtain additional air quality permits, Huffman said. The inspectors decided no new permits were needed, and they wouldn’t have inspected the tanks where the MCHM leak occurred, he said.

State environmental officials told CNN the facility had the only permit it was required to have: an industrial storm water permit.

Hiltzig added that the Charleston case is also a reminder of the imbalance in bankruptcy rights created by the bankruptcy “reform” of 2005, when Congress harshly tightened the rights of individual debtors (under pressure from the creditor lobby), while leaving the rules for corporate bankruptcies in place, or even liberalizing them. “The result for the individual victims of the Charleston spill may well be, from Freedom’s standpoint, heads we win, tails you lose,” he wrote.

This is what the “free market” gets you: water that smells like licorice, but you can’t drink, cook or wash your hands with it. And after the corporate polluters ruin your water supply, either by dumping chemicals into your river or injecting chemicals into your groundwater or running chemicals through a pipeline that ruptures over your aquifer, then the corporate owners can run to bankruptcy court to protect their assets and leave the cleanup costs to the state and federal authorities and aggrieved residents holding the bag.

Since the late 19th century, populists have believed that government should protect working people, small businesses and family farmers and ranchers from predatory corporations. Right-wing business executives such as the Koch Brothers founded FreedomWorks and other organizations that have tried to turn that populist tradition on its head in organizing the Tea Party movement to protect corporations like Freedom Industries from government regulation. (FreedomWorks and Freedom Industries apparently are unrelated, though the Koch Brothers’ Georgia-Pacific Chemicals supplies mining reagents to Freedom Industries, reported. Eastman Chemical Co. was manufacturer of the crude MCHM and has been named as a defendant in lawsuits relating to the spill, which allege that the company failed to warn adequately of MCHM’s hazards, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported.)

The plutocrats have been working since Franklin Roosevelt died 70 years ago to repeal the New Deal and reduce the government so that it no longer could stand up to the corporations. They finally made headway with the Reagan Administration in the 1980s as right wingers vilified labor unions and government regulations that interfered with the fictional free market and the “job creators” who turned out actually to be “job movers.”

One of the weapons in the plutocrats’ arsenal is the “free trade” scam that makes labor and health standards subordinate to corporate profits. In the past 30 years the plutocrats have succeeded in exporting manufacturing jobs overseas, maintaining the profits from those operations offshore, just beyond the reach of the Internal Revenue Service, and forcing industrial unions to accept concessions in wages and benefits to avoid further job outsourcing.

The latest manifestation is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is being negotiated in secret by trade representatives from the US and 11 nations in the Pacific region. According to reports leaked from the negotiations, the pact would allow international tribunals to overrule federal, state and local regulations that interfere with trade — or else the government would have to reimburse corporations for profits that are lost because of the regulations. The pact is expected to be presented to Congress on a rushed, take-it-or-leave-it “fast track” basis this spring. Tell your congressional representative and senators to say no to “fast track” for the Trans Pacific Partnership. For more information see Don’t wait ’til your tap water smells like licorice (or catches fire).