"Time for bottled water in Charleston."
OK, so no one actually emailed that in West Virginia, where 300,000 people -- some of whom may already have been sickened -- don't know when they'll be able to drink their tap water again, after a highly toxic chemical spilled into a major waterway. And frankly, it's not surprising that for the last three days this has been what we call the "off-lede" to the Chris Christie/George Washington Bridge scandal. That story has it all -- a larger-than-life "celebrity" pol with White House ambitions, a political caper that reads like a comic spin on Watergate. And as a former teenaged Watergate geek, I can't get enough of the Christie story and can't fault the media for a little overkill.
But...in the scheme of things, the crisis in West Virginia may be more relevant to where America is at as a nation these days. I mean, the grand themes of the Christie scandal -- revenge, loyalty and betrayal -- are timeless; just buy "The Godfather" trilogy on demand and you've pretty much seen the story. But the bizarre case of a company called Freedom Industries may say more about 2014, and our current mania for shunting aside protecting our planet in the name of profits and what businessmen like to call "freedom," in a way that the New Jersey story ever will.
Read this profile in the Charleston Gazette (which is doing an outstanding job covering the crisis) and you'll wonder, as many are, how this kind of operation was allowed to store up to 1 million pounds of a highly dangerous chemical used in coal production, and to do so on the banks of the river that supplies the area's drinking water. For example, for hours the only detailed information on the spill was on the Facebook page of a girlfriend -- Kathy Stover-Kennedy -- of a Freedom executive:
Stover-Kennedy stressed that the spill was an accident and said that Farrell has received threatening and frightening messages from people around the world.
"I'm not asking for anyone's sympathy but a little empathy wouldn't hurt. And just so you know, the boys at the plant made and drank coffee this morning! I showered and brushed my teeth this morning and I am just fine!" Stover-Kennedy wrote on her personal Facebook page.
The firm's roots are dubious:
[Founder Karl] Kennedy is still listed as "incorporator" on the secretary of state's website, but a woman who answered the phone at Freedom Industries said he left the company "years ago."
In 2005, federal prosecutors charged Kennedy with failing to pay more than $200,000 in income taxes, according to reports at the time. In 1987, he pleaded guilty to selling between 10 and 12 ounces of cocaine, according to reports.
Kennedy and Farrell became friends and eventually went into business together. In 2002, they opened a sports bar in Montgomery called The Bank Bar and Grill.
Still, they went ahead and launched a coal-servicing company with 13 giant bulk storage tanks just a few feet from the Elk River, with a large total capacity of 4 million gallons. Last week, the spill at the site was only discovered after local residents called authorities to complain about a foul odor in the air. When officials got to the facility, the hazardous chemical -- 4-methylcyclohexane methanol -- was leaking out of a tank and into a faulty containment area that was also leaking, right into the river. Officials from Freedom Industries hadn't told police, regulators, or anyone else about the hazardous chemical spill, nor were they doing anything about it because....freedom?
Clearly, this was also a failure of adequate regulation:
t's unclear whether the West Virginia American Water Co. was aware the chemical was being stored there but the company did acknowledge it was unprepared for MCHM with a spokeswoman saying that "this was not a chemical we were familiar with." They were hardly alone. Public agencies and officials are "all acting a bit surprised that this mystery substance was being stockpiled so close to a crucial water intake, and shocked that something like this could have happened," notes the Charleston Gazette.
According to another account, state environmental regulators had not been to the site since 1991!
And yet this is the utopia that so many conservatives want, isn't it?...businesses getting free reign, without a pesky regulator in sight. In Washington, GOP lawmakers have been seeking to defang and weaken the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in order to give businesses -- especially companies in the energy business, including coal -- the ability to operate with minimal scrutiny. In West Virginia, this is what a Republican state lawmaker said just last week:
''We are regulated to death,'' he said. ''Businesses need predictability. The governor could have said something about that.''