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22 January 2014

Policy must protect from pollution

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It seems that U.S. policies and regulations are only revised when a tragedy occurs. Such is the case of the massive chemical spill in West Virginia. More of these disasters are caused by sheer oversight each year, indicating that current regulation is insufficient.

Some things cannot be prevented. However, the case of the West Virginia chemical spill was not a simple “accident.” The spill occurred when methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used in coal processing, leaked out of a one-inch hole in a storage tank and into the nearby Elk River. The contamination reached roughly 300,000 West Virginians, and rendered the water supply virtually useless.

Randy Huffman, head of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, claims that poor regulation is to blame. “There’s not necessarily the kind of robust environmental controls that people might anticipate …on these types of facilities,” Huffman told CNN. After further investigation, inspectors confirmed that the storage tank was outdated and damaged.

We see how regulation can directly affect the lives of Americans. Throughout history, industries become more strictly monitored after injustice is exposed. Upton Sinclair’s portrayal of the meatpacking industry led to major reforms in food production. More recently, school shootings have sparked a fierce debate over gun laws in the U.S. Each time this happens, American citizens act as the proverbial canaries in a coal mine. By now, our government should have learned its lesson.

Perhaps the federal government has too much on its plate to monitor every potential industry threat. We also have more toxins to regulate than ever before. Even still, it could be a matter of practicality or money. However, when it comes to the health of its citizens, a government should not cut corners. We depend on our leaders to make health and safety a top priority, but the chemical spill exposed oversight and regulatory loopholes. If such loopholes continue to exist, we can expect to see more lives interrupted.

 

Amanda Wood is a junior majoring in ecosystem science and policy.