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EHT on the Revolution Against Pollution

Feb 11, 2014



Dr. Davis discusses lessons learned from West Virginia Water Pollution Disaster

Last month, the nation learned that President Barack Obama issued an unprecedented emergency declaration for the state of West Virginia, ordering federal aid in the aftermath of a chemical spill that left up thousands of residents without tap or bathing water, and closed schools and businesses. The spill of the foul smelling 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, a chemical used in the coal industry, on the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia’s capital and largest city, upriver from the eastern U.S. state’s largest water treatment plant made news Thursday.

Residents believe the spill started days earlier when children reported itching after showering. “It’s no surprise that this heavily polluted region was home to such a major incident,” said Devra Davis author and President of the Environmental Health Trust. “West Virginia has a sad tradition of being home to a number of serious environmental disasters.  In August of 2008 a major chemical explosion rocked a Bayer Chemical plant in Institute West Virginia, killing workers Barry Withrow and Bill Oxley.  The blast sent a two and a half ton steel tank hurling into the air with a fireball thousands of feet high and was felt ten miles away.

Three years later in 2011 a House subcommittee investigation revealed that the U.S. had narrowly avoided having its own Bhopal as a result of this West Virginia explosion.  In Bhopal in 1984, a Union Carbide plant blew to smithereens when the highly explosive Methyl-isocyanate (MIC) erupted, killing thousands and leaving more homeless in India.  The Institute explosion of 2008 occurred less than 100 feet from a huge tank of MIC in the town of Institute.  West Virginia dodged a huge bullet that time.”

In 2008, the federal government noted the lack of safety surveys in the area when it investigated this fatal plant explosion.   Congress condemned the refusal of companies to come forward with important information about the causes of this accident, holding a hearing entitled “Secrecy in the Response to Bayer’s Fatal Chemical Plant Explosion, in November, 2011.

“The latest chemical release in West Virginia continues a tradition of indifference to public safety that has deep roots in the state and in the chemical industry.  Trade secrets are protected while human health is not.  Workers are expendable and in this economy, as they are replaceable,” Dr. Davis notes.  “As the plume moved to Ohio, we are reminded that we all live downstream.”

Dr. Davis is no stranger to the issue, she was appointed by President Clinton as a founding member of the National Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in 1994.   Disappointed by the lack of commitment to preventing chemical accidents, Dr. Davis resigned from that board in 1999.

Pollution has also affected the Davis family. Infant at the time, Dr. Davis and her family lived through The 1948 Donora smog was a historic air inversion resulting in a wall of smog that killed 20 people and sickened 7,000 more in Donora, Pennsylvania, a mill town on the Monongahela River, 24 miles (39 km) southeast of Pittsburgh. Dr. Davis, a National Book award finalist, chronicled this historic event in her bestselling book, When Smoke Ran like Water.  

Dr. Davis concludes that pollution is an issue that won’t be going away just because the spotlight has left West Virginia.

More on the topic:

Dr. Davis in the Washington Post:


Dr. Davis on This Green Earth radio show:


Dr. Davis on Locus Focus Radio show: