Authorities in West Virginia declared the water of 300,000 residents affected by last month's chemical spill safe to drink on 14 January, just five days after the incident. Since then, a few things have happened. Stop me if you've heard them before (but I doubt you have).
1. On 15 January, the Centers for Disease Control issued a statement advising pregnant women to ignore the state's OK.
2. On 17 January, Freedom Industries, the owner of the plant involved, filed for bankruptcy, a move calculated to protect them from the financial consequences of the spill.
3. On 21 January, Freedom Industries admitted the presence of a second toxic chemical in the spill, a proprietary mixture of polyglycol ethers known as PPH.
4. On 29 January, a member of the state's water quality board told a panel that he could "guarantee" residents are still breathing fumes from that formaldehyde.
5. On 30 January, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, asked the company in charge of that region's water supply for another 20 truckloads of bottled water – on top of the 13 truckloads they already donated.
This may prove prescient. On 31 January, Freedom Industries reported a second spill. But not to worry, they assured the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), "None of the stuff got into the river." DEP itself was less-than-clear on what happened, one official telling the Charleston Gazette:
It's kind of like a lot of the piping up there … It's got some groundwater in it. We don't know where it is coming from.
On a related note: 1 February brought the news that the DEP never reviewed Freedom Industries' pollution prevention plans in the first place.
This seems like juicy stuff to me. Yet the story, as the national media sees it, is over. On Friday, MSNBC killed a segment with activist Erin Brockovich on the topic in order to devote more airtime to Chris Christie's traffic problems.
To anyone that follows environmental news, this arc is familiar: A human-interest story with an environmental pollution angle breaks through the media chatter. Cable news outlets roll clips of distraught residents. Footage the damage unspools (with or without stomach-turning images of dead or injured wildlife). There is a news conference of dubious utility. Investigative reporters find evidence of previous infractions of safety and environmental regulations. Politicians declare the need for hearings and more strict enforcement. Volunteers show up to help. Sometimes there's a concert.
Then we move on. We move on despite the fact that the chemical leak was, in some ways, an improvement on the status quo for West Virginians: at least the residents knew there were questions about the water piped into their homes. Most of the time, most West Virginians simply live in the toxic aftermath of the daily release of not-quite-as-verifiably deadly chemicals. The mix of air, water, and soil pollution that is a matter of course in coal mining counties means that children born in those areas have a 26% higher risk of developing birth defects than those born in non-coal-mining counties. That's not from drinking water that's been declared contaminated, that's from drinking water, breathing air, and playing on ground they've been told is safe.
The underlying crisis behind most environmental tragedies is the part of the story that we rarely hear about. Our attention is shifting away from chemical spill, as it has from mine collapses and explosions, from oil spills, and, often, from natural disasters as well. Ironically, it's natural disasters – the ones with the least tangible connection to the actions of specific individuals – that manage to sustain the most interest among the national media. I am pretty sure this is because no one lobbies on Hurricane Sandy's behalf. Tornados are not considered to be good Sunday talk show guests.
That the coal industry spends upwards of $14m a year for the past four years on lobbying efforts – not including the $14m they spent just last year on direct contributions to campaigns – partially explains why our attention is so fleeting. It also explains why the disasters are so bad.
The latter consequence stems from a distressingly simple pattern of cause and effect: for 200 years, and most particularly during the last two decades, the coal industry (and the energy lobby in general) has been as much, if not more, effective and industrious in its influence on politicians than it has been in generating electricity.
Our country has grown a vast and complex regulatory and financial support system for cheap, dirty energy: tax breaks, loopholes and the like. Researchers estimate that if Americans has to pay the real cost for each kilowatt-hour, factoring in hidden costs to communities' health, economy, ecology, we would pay three times as much than we do today. The energy lobby's approach to influence peddling, on the other hand, has systematic elegance of a see-saw: They put money into politicians' pockets, and they get legislative favors back. Indeed, it has been 38 years since Congress passed any law that had a substantive impact on the use of toxic chemicals. To put that in context: in 1975, we were still using asbestos in our walls, you could smoke on airplanes and the food packagers did not have to report or monitor pesticide residue levels on fresh produce.
I have a more tenuous explanation for the transient and vague concern of political reporters over environmental matters. I believe it probably has something to do with how terrified most of us are of science, which is full of numbers and big words.
I should emphasize that many reporters do fantastic work in this field. And by "many" I mean about a dozen. Two days after the Freedom Industries spill, the New York Times announced that it was dismantling its environmental reporting team; that left 15 dedicated environmental reporters among the nation's top five papers. Some context: across the industry and worldwide, the Society for Environmental Journalists has 1,400 members. Last year, almost twice that many reporters attended the Conservative Political Action Conference alone – I was one of them.
CPAC attracts journalists primarily because it's considered an early indicator presidential horserace odds; I wish we pundits would bring to science the same intrepid attitude we have toward reporting on those fuzzy facts. Indeed, the same certainty with which pundits cite poll numbers could be applied to scientific findings with even more confidence – journal studies are peer-reviewed and designed to have reproducible results. That polls can be wrong, or the mood of the electorate shift rapidly, is simply acknowledged with a wink: "The only poll the matters is the one on Election Day." In the world of scientific investigation, and for environmental studies in particular, every day is Election Day: you can see the proof of their conclusions all around you.
When it comes to the West Virginia chemical leak, one might suppose that the Washington Beltway has insulated the chattering class from the stink: not just the because of the bubble of self-absorption the Beltway represents, but because of the sheer distance between West Virginia and Washington DC. It's about a five-hour drive. New Jersey is just an hour closer, but the shared obsession with process politics (and Bruce Springsteen) makes it seem like next door.
Still, West Virginia is closer than DC reporters might think, and its toxic water may yet wind up in the ice that clinks during Washington cocktail parties. Many of the chemicals that coal production sloughs off into the air, water, and land are heavy metals. They don't decompose with time and instead migrate and accumulate; what was in West Virginia's soil can eventually contaminate suburban Arlington's rain.
Last month, the supreme court heard arguments about an Environmental Protection Agency regulation designed to address just that: the "Cross-State Air Pollution Rule", which is exactly what it sounds like. At issue is the way the EPA apportions clean-up and directs policy changes; in the federally designated "Ozone Transport Region", a select group of states whose power-plants causes other states' to fail federal air-quality standards would have to submit to the EPA's authority in fixing the problem.
The rule was successfully challenged by "upwind" states at the appellate level and the Supreme Court's predilection is unusually inscrutable: With Justice Alito having recused himself, it's possible that the decision will end in a tie between its traditionally left and right wings. In the case of a tie, the appellate decision will stand.
At the time, Governor Tomblin celebrated the appellate court's ruling: "It's time for Washington to stop trying to tell us how to run our coal mines," he said. He meant "the White House," not Washington, of course. Because in Washington, they still don't care.