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On Thursday, 7,500 gallons of a toxic chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), spilled from the tank where it was waiting to be used to clean coal into the Elk River in West Virginia.
The spill has highlighted the odd, overlapping, and somehow porous regulation of industrial chemicals, the infrastructure that holds them, and the companies that sell them. MCHM is one of the more than 60,000 chemicals exempt from the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), on the grounds that they were in in use when the law was passed in 1976. As a result, its safety and safe use isn’t regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The West Virginia Gazette’s Ken Ward reports that the plant where the chemical was being held wasn’t regularly inspected by federal or state authorities. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection last inspected the plant in 1991, and OSHA has never inspected the site. The last time West Virginia did a water quality test at the location was 2002, and it didn’t mention MCHM. Adding to the sense that this disaster is unfolding in a parallel regulatory universe, the only permit that Freedom Industries, the owner of the site, applied for was for stormwater discharge.
Freedom Industries itself has an impossible-to-invent backstory: it is the little more than two-week old product of a merger, and when its predecessor company was formed two years ago, one of the two founders was a two-time felon.