Thursday, January 23, 2014

West Virginia Chemical Spill & Polluted Drinking Water: History repeating itself?

"Chemical pollution can do its damage so quickly that preventive legislation and control are essential.”

A reaction to the recent West Virginia Chemical Spill?
A quote pulled from the many articles that have been published in the wake of the events?

No and No.

The quote is from 1947. It’s the reflection of Arthur Pickett, the Deputy Engineer of Los Angeles County, on an incident of chemical contamination that had occurred 2 years earlier.

In 1945, a chemical plant in Alhambra, California discharged a batch of its manufacturing wastes from the production of the herbicide 2,4-D to the sewer system. The wastes passed through the treatment system and were discharged into a nearby river. Though heavily diluted, the pollution seeped into an underground aquifer used for drinking water by the City of Montebello. Within three days of the spill citizens were complaining of objectionable tastes and odors in their water. Two weeks later, 11 municipal wells serving 25,000 people were out of commission and tastes and odors persisted for about five years.

What can we learn from history?

The event, known as the “Montebello Incident” drew a great deal of attention to the importance of better laws and regulations for industrial waste disposal, and the protection of groundwater resources. The incident was later cited as impetus for California’s Water Quality Control Act of 1949, also known as the Dickey Act, “commonly regarded as the first comprehensive water pollution control legislation in the United States" (Hanemann and Dyckman).

Today we’ve come a long way from the 1940’s: we have the CWA, RCRA, TSCA, CERCLA. We have numerous environmental protection laws at the state and local levels. We have better infrastructure to quickly report spills and hazardous conditions.

But history has a tendency to repeat itself.  Events such as the West Virginia spill and the Montebello incident highlight the holes or deficiencies in regulation. Some in Congress and in the consulting world, and many in the media  have noted that the WV spill draws attention to 1) the current state of federal chemical regulation 2) the adequacy of state control and oversight and 3) the preparedness of local emergency planning.

Pickett noted in 1947 that it is important to have regulations in place to safeguard against such events; however, he also pointed out that “[p]ollution cannot be prevented simply by enacting new legislation either at the local, state, or national levels. Legislation must be backed up with adequate technical personnel to carry out its provisions.”

Though the West Virginia spill was much larger in terms of amount of chemical spilled and the population affected, it is notable that the reaction to this incident echoes sentiments espoused nearly 70 years ago.

It will be interesting to see if modern day reactions prompt regulatory changes as comprehensive as the Dickey Act. Already there have been proposals to regulate above-ground storage tanks; there have also been informal recommendations that the chemical notifications and planning processes need to be revised.

Either way, we would do well to remember the Montebello Incident and Pickett’s observation that a marriage of adequate regulations and enforcement might be the best solution.

Submitted by Kate McMahon, Research Associate

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