Last week, 300,000 West Virginia residents had the joy of witnessing a chemical spill transmogrify their entire drinking water supply into a magical diarrhea-conjuring elixir of pain. The only upside to this situation, besides the higher chance of any future X-Men being born in the area, is that we've learned from it and made sure it will never happen again.
Just kidding! It will totally happen again, and there's nothing we can do about it, because ...
#4. Regulations on Chemicals Are a Big Joke
So what, exactly, does the substance that thousands of West Virginians suddenly found spicing up their drinking water (4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, abbreviated to MCHM) do? Well, here's how much we know about it:
Eastman Chemical Company
"FLAVOR: IDK, bad?"
Or, to put it another way:
"It's a chemical. That much is clear."
How's that possible? The reason dates back to the Toxic Substances Control Act passed in 1976, which heroically took control of those substances by simply grandfathering all 62,000 of the current chemicals into the market with no effort to find out just what the hell they were. Including MCHM. As for any chemicals introduced since then, the act only gave the EPA 90 days to determine regulation on anything new -- with fucking hundreds of chemicals popping up each year. And if they don't get around to reviewing something in that period? Then it's totally free to use. It's the ol' "innocent until proven guilty" method for chemicals, except no one's trying to prove them guilty.
At least the EPA will step up its game now, right?
"We need time to rewatch Game of Thrones before the new season starts," officials said.
#3. The Laws Are So Vague, They Have No Idea How to Punish Companies
So now that you're shitting in your hamper after a failed dash to the toilet, you're probably wondering who is going to jail for ruining your last good work shirt. After all, Freedom Industries -- the ominously named company that stuck their dick in the state's water supply -- clearly broke the law by failing to report the spill in the required time. But which law? Um ...
"Legally, all I can do is ask you to pinky swear not to do it again."
The law says any industrial facility is required to report an emergency concerning extremely hazardous substances within 15 minutes -- Freedom Industries took nearly four fucking hours. While that sounds like a no-brainer, thanks to the amazingly loose wording, the shit-your-pants chemical hasn't been technically classified as a "hazardous substance" in an "industrial facility" on account that it merely stores the gunk.
Luckily, there's a second pollution law saying that anyone who doesn't give "immediate notification" of a spill can face charges ... that hilariously doesn't specify what "immediate notification" means. In other words, this all might have to come down to Death Wish-style street justice before it's over.
Image Source/Photodisc/Getty Images
"I was already in bed, and my phone was in the other room. Be reasonable."
#2. Chemical Plants Are Apparently Ticking Time Bombs
While taking their time to report the spill, Freedom Industries did at least try to stop the 4-foot-wide stream of ooze liberating itself from their containment dike ... by sticking a single sandbag and cinder block in its path.
Gary Phillips/iStock/Getty Images
This minimalist approach to disaster prevention was the only thing between the vomit sludge and a downstream water treatment facility for 300,000 people, but it could be worse: Not far from there is Marsh Fork Elementary, a school located 400 yards downslope from 2.8 billion gallons of toxicity being held at one of the state's largest chemical impoundments. If something goes wrong there, the kids will have less than five minutes for evacuation.
"I don't care how loud those sirens are. We are not leaving this classroom until one of you tells me the capital of North Carolina."
By the way, when the spilled chemicals at Freedom Industries were moved to a second nearby location, that facility was discovered to have the same goddamn safety violations as the plant that fucked the dog, as well as zero evidence of employee training for the last 10 years.
It kind of makes you wonder if these places ever get inspected ...
#1. These Places Never Get Inspected (Unless Something Bad Happens First)
Pretty much every failure of basic industrial competence we've outlined for you could've quite easily been prevented with an outside party simply observing it and saying, "Hey, um, that's fucked up." Fun fact: The Freedom Industries plant hadn't been fully inspected in 23 years.
Ty Wright/The Washington Post/Getty Images
"'Report to the main office'? Oh, fuck this; just mark it 'Pass'."
If that sounds like a blatant oversight of regulations, don't worry -- it's totally not one! Thanks to the fact that MCHM had very little information to make it "hazardous," inspections were only required if there was a complaint or if a new chemical was being stored at the site. Otherwise it was "good luck with all those chemicals, we hope that's working out."
Of course, all this gratuitous lack of regulation must be getting the attention of Congress. So that's good, right?
"Double pinky swears from here on!"