26 January 2014

Lessons from the Elk River Chemical Spill; Just Not the Ones You Thinkee

To set the stage: A company called Freedom Industries operates  a facility on the Elk River, upstream from Charleston, West Virginia, the state capital. That facility is part of the coal recovery and distribution process.  To do its work, the company has a lot of chemical products stored there.

The confluence of the Elk and Kanawha Rivers is located right in the middle of downtown Charleston. (A bit of nickel knowledge: That was the site of a winter camp of the noted frontiersmen, Simon Kenton.)

At the Freedom Industries facility, early in January, at least one of the above-ground chemical tanks leaked. About 7500 gallons of one (or possibly two) little-understood chemical were released into the Elk River. Aerial photos taken shortly thereafter showed the sheen on the water as the chemical spill flowed into the Kanawha.

Freedom Industries is upstream from the intake for the water treatment plant of Charleston. Of course, there are also lots of other water plant intakes down downstream from there. Around 300,000 people who depended on municipal water systems were without potable water to drink for more than a week.  The water in the system could not be made safe by boiling or any other common means.

The lawsuits have already started and Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy.

Let's dispense with the question of fault quickly. Freedom Industries is liable. It is liable using the same reasoning used by Gerry Spence in the Karen Silkwood case, where the issue was a spill of radioactive materials.  If you keep a tiger, and the tiger gets out of the cage, you are responsible for the harm the tiger does. Period.  Because a tiger is so dangerous, you have a duty to use extraordinary efforts to keep the tiger caged.

Just so, chemical users have a duty to use extraordinary efforts to keep chemicals secure from release into the water or otherwise loose in a way which will endanger the public.

Freedom Industries screwed up big time. It let the tiger out. 

But before we feel all shocked, offended and morally superior, let's see the first lesson from the Elk River spill:

There are lots and lots of tigers out there in flimsy cages. We profit from having the tigers and as long as nothing goes wrong, we don’t think about whether or how they can get out of the cage.

A random example: Most communities have some sort of large public swimming pool.  Most pools use chlorine as an agent to keep the water clean. Anyone who swims (or does laundry) knows that the odor of chlorine is harsh and uncomfortable even in minute concentrations. Anything more than a minute concentration of chlorine is a health hazard.  Chlorine was one of the first chemical agents used in warfare, seeing action in World War I. When the wind was right, the "chemical soldiers” took cylinders forward, opened the valves, and let a heavy and deadly gas cloud spread to the enemy. The inhalation of chlorine was often fatal and when not fatal, often caused grevious and permanent respiratory injuries.

The cylinders used in war are just like the ones which contain the chlorine at big swimming pools. So - Do you know how secure the chlorine is kept as your local public pool? Do you have any idea of the degree of danger of an accidental release?  Do you know how - or if - the pool staff has been trained to handle the chemicals?  How about the security of the chemical from someone who wants to release it with a malevolent intent?

I didn't think so.

In a typical "Band-Aid" fashion, the West Virginia legislature is "taking action"!  We have seen new proposed legislation which increases the oversight of above-ground chemical tanks.


The Band-Aid approach is hardly unexpected. It shows how deeply the Political Class Cares (so keep those votes coming). Because it is aimed at a very small part of the problem, we can say that it's not that expensive. Besides, they'll figure a way to tag the chemical industry with the cost.

. . . and conveniently forget that the people pay for everything anyway.

This illustrates the main de facto function of the Political Class, to decide how to spend other peoples money so they themselves look good.

The best lesson from the Elk River Spill is that we should look beyond the immediate cause and realize that the above-ground chemical tanks are a tiny part of the danger. 

Obviously, those tanks were a problem – Freedom Industries failed to keep the tiger caged. That violated the industry standard of redundancy: If the tiger escapes first cage, there needs to be another cage between the tiger and the people. Or, in the case of chemical storage, there has to be some secondary method of containment.

So we have to deal with the fact that there are lots and lots of bad things which can happen which have the potential for widespread public harm. And when meeting that harm exceeds the capacity of the local responders, we have what's 
called a disaster.  (Actually, that’s one definition of “disaster.”)

Generally, we have little or no redundancy in our entire infrastructure. But this is an infrastructure upon which we depend for day-to-day functioning and in many cases for basic sustenance. 

We as individuals are so dependent on public services – infrastructure – that when any of them go out of service, we as citizens often perceive ourselves weak and unable to cope. And so we look at Big Daddy government to ride in and save 
the day.

Like Hurricane Katrina - “You’re doing a great job, Brownie!”

Bad things can happen. There are 200,000+ chemicals used in industry.  As to most of these chemicals, the levels which people can tolerate and the effects of long-term low exposure are only poorly understood. We do know that some chemicals – e.g., PCBs and dioxin – are dangerous or lethal in extremely small concentrations.  Indeed, dioxin exposure at “safe” levels has led to illness and death of lots of Vietnam veterans.  (Including my now-deceased brother.)

Elk River, one incident, took away the clean water source for 0.1% of the American population. That was with one tank. A simple (and inaccurate) extrapolation would say that 350 tanks of the same product could take out the entire nation’s supply of drinking water.

Another infrastructure where there is little redundancy is the power grid. The power grid is a patchwork controlled in many places by antiquated equipment.  There is insufficient profit in the power industry to upgrade to robust and redundant control systems.  As long as the primary system works, as long as the lights, computers and TV’s are on, the public doesn't notice and wants to keep their power bill down.

Our entire "just-in-time" delivery system is another large infrastructure. To keep shipping costs down, businesses receive products and materials just when they are about to be used.  That cuts down drastically on warehousing.   Indeed, at WalMart distribution centers, the ideal is that nothing gets stored.  Products come from the receiving dock to a sorting area, where they are paletted for immediate shipment to stores.

The disruption of the transportation system will lead to immediate shortages of food and other products upon which we heavily depend. The kinds of things that can take down the transportation system are legion: Deteriorating bridges, weather phenomena, earthquakes, terrorist/aggressor action, and those are just the ones immediately come to mind. Of particular concern are the weak points in the system which can be exploited by humans with a bad intent.

The response to Elk River was immediate and reasonably effective, but it has within it the lesson of inadequate response. This was 0.1% of the American population affected. The effort put in to supply this one commodity, drinking water, to that part of the population was very large and expensive and covered used the disaster response/materials of most providers east of the Mississippi.

Even so, there was a drumbeat that aid was not coming in fast enough or in enough quantities and that the government wasn't doing enough.

All in all, we got lucky this time.

So: What are the answers? Surely there has to be an answer.

Gotcha – Complex problems seldom are solved with simple answers. Certainly, legislation regulating one minute part of the problem is nothing more than a little Band-Aid with a lot of brass band.

The truth is, nobody, no government, no NGO, no private agency has the guts or the insight to forecast the threats, organize them for probability of occurrence and extent of potential harm, and then do what it takes to prepare for them. On so many occasions, we depend on "good old American know how" to come up with ad hoc responses to problems.   An ad hoc response (or, in the industry vernacular, picking a plan out of  your ass) seldom works.   Multiply Elk River by an order of magnitude, then you might exceed the national ability to keep people safe.

This whole lack of planning reminds me of that old song about fixing the roof.  The roof leaks when it rains and that's bad, but during the rain, we can't get on the roof. On sunny days, we can can get on the roof, but we really don't need to because it's not raining so the roof is not leaking.

We have a leaky roof.  As long as we are unwilling to plan realistically and make the sacrifices in advance, we are going to be subject to disruptions which we can scarcely imagine. Individually, these are improbable in any given year.  Taken together, a very bad event is inevitable in any decade.

I wish I could predict a happy ending. But that would take finding a new mindset, or what would look like one everybody except the very old, and to find a spirit of sacrifice 
that nobody shows these days.  And, worst of all, it would also require guts and truth from the Politcal Class, which have long been AWOL.

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