They say if we’re fatter we can accept more pollutants

The river smelled like licorice

Last week The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a rules bill that failed to make the state’s water any safer. After almost a year of hearings on a rules change proposed by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection that would have used federal guidelines handed down by the Environmental Protection Agency to more strictly enforce the amount of pollutants and carcinogens that are dumped into the rivers and waterways, the Republican-controlled legislature punted after a strong lobbying push lead by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.

All of that is very predictable of course, but you might be surprised to hear the line of argument used by the WVMA which in essence was that since West Virginians are so fat, drink so little water, and eat so little fish compared to the rest of the country, it would be unfair to the polluting industry to hold them to the same standards in other skinnier, thirstier, fish-eating states.

“There’s a bit of circular logic there,” Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition told me this week.

“We’re saying we can allow more pollutants because we don’t eat as as much fish, but we don’t eat as much fish because there’s so much pollution.”

On top of that people who are heavier the WVMA argued wrongly can handle a bit more pollution in their diet and no I’m not kidding. You can read it all here beginning on page 51 but here are a few excerpts.

Hold on I gotta go to the brain hospital real quick be right back.

The WVMA likes to present themselves as a group of local manufacturers concerned about the well-being of the state, but you may not be surprised to learn that among their two hundred odd members are corporations like Dow Chemical, DuPont, Proctor & Gamble, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, Marathon Petroleum Company and other massive international polluters.

In 2017 DuPont agreed to pay $670 million in a class action lawsuit after a cancer-causing chemical used in the production of teflon was found to have contaminated waterways throughout the region and into Kentucky and Ohio. Also in 2017 West Virginia State University sued Dow Chemical and Bayer who they said “through both direct actions and negligence allowed the plant to leak the chemicals 1,4-dioxane; 1,2-dichloroethane; and chloroform into the ground and water around the school.”

The EPA classifies all three as probably carcinogens.

In 2014 runoff from a Freedom Industries (lol) plant that produced a chemical that treats coal leaked into the Elk River leaving some 300,000 residents around Charleston without potable water. Residents at the time said it made the river smell like licorice.

Incidentally the WVMA also operate a Political Action Committee you can donate to here.

“The West Virginians for Manufacturing Jobs Political Action Committee assists the WVMA’s ability to support pro-industry candidates, and can directly correlate to success on Election Day and legislative success!” the say. “With the help of you and your colleagues, the WVMJ PAC will elevate the position of WVMA leadership in shaping policy-making decisions for West Virginia.”

That certainly seems to have worked this time around!

I asked the WVMA to explain if they stood by their argument that West Virginians are too fat and don’t drink enough water.

“During several of legislative committee meetings concerning Senate Bill 163, we have openly shared this approach to criteria re-evaluation,” Rebecca McPhail explained in an email. “Unfortunately, some are trying to develop a narrative out of context that does not represent the work we are presently undertaking.”

Then she wrote some other shit including the words “trophic level of fish consumed” “cancer slope factors” and “ultimate criterion” all of which basically translated into our companies didn’t want to spend a single dime more than they absolutely have to preventing people from getting sick.

I called Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition after that because I felt like my mind was polluted with corporate horse shit. She was surprised that I called at all saying she’s always “intrigued when people from other parts of the country pay attention to what happens here, which is what we need.”

Can you explain the overview of what just happened on this vote from your group’s point of view?

Under the Clean Water Act the state is required in effect to put limits on the amount of pollution allowed in our waters in way that protects the designated uses of those waters.  The “human health criteria” is what was at stake for us this past year.  Human health criteria covers a group of pollutants that are most harmful to human health.It covers the toxins and cancer-causing chemicals we have to keep at certain levels so they don’t cause diseases in water we drink and the fish we eat or in direct contact through swimming or boating.

Our standards for human health criteria were largely put in place in mid-1980s. A few have been updated since then, but by and large they are over thirty years old. In 2015 the EPA came out with new recommended updates. They recommended all the states take a look at these and adopt them. They were based on the best available science. The science has changed and new studies have been done. We understand more about the risks involved and the appropriate exposure levels now.

Every three years states are required to go through a triennial review of water standards. That’s what our state DEP was doing, they were looking at EPA’s recommendations. They decided of the ninety four updates recommended West Virginia would adopt sixty. There was one change they made from the EPA recommendations, where they used a state specific fish consumption rate.

In 2008 the West Virginia DEP commissioned a study about the West Virginia fish consumption rate related to a mercury issue. They were convinced at the request of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association to apply that 2008 study. The rate was found to be half of the national average so they changed our numbers from what the EPA recommended. Instead of using 28 grams per day of fish consumption they brought it down to 9.9 grams.

Is their argument that people eat less fish in West Virginia?

Yes that was what this one study said. We said the study didn’t take into account any of the social factors of why people aren’t eating fish here. One of the reasons we contend — and I know which is why I don’t — is that we have fish contamination advisories on every waterway in the state.  Growing up here we all go fishing but we’re told don’t you dare eat them. There’s some circular logic there to me. We’re saying we can allow more pollutions because we don’t eat as as much fish but we don’t eat as much fish because there’s so much pollution.

I saw that the WVMA argued that West Virginians were too fat and didn’t drink enough water so that in effect it was ok to have higher levels of contamination?

The overall criteria is determined by different data inputs, three of those are fish consumption, body weight, and water consumption.

Where was it they actually made that argument, in a hearing?

It came up in a couple places. One is the WVMA, they’ve been the lead opposition of this and represent a lot of the chemical manufacturing companies which are the main industries that discharge these kids of toxins and carcinogens. In their comments on the proposed rule change not only did they recommend we use the West Virginia fish consumption rate, but also suggested we use the average body weight for men in West Virginia, which is substantially higher than the national average body weight that the EPA used.  The DEP denied that request. They went with the national average. They didn’t find it legitimate enough, and just going with a male bodyweight doesn’t protect kids you know.  That was what the industry were pushing for. To account for bigger body mass, again that would result in allowing for more pollution.  The typical logic behind that is if we’re fatter or heavier we can accept more pollutants.

Isn’t the opposite actually true? That carcinogens are better stored in fat cells?

Correct. I’m not a public health expert but we talked to them and they say exactly that. And people who are obese have other diseases as well that compromise their health. The idea that because you have more fat you can take more toxins isn’t true. Your health is also being compromised by other ailments.  

So what happens now?

Ultimately the legislature passed the bill without the updates, so we’re at the status quo with our standards being terribly outdated leaving public health at risk, and we’re relying on science conducted prior to 1985.

But the whole argument brought by the industry is that they need more time to study, so the industry is coming up with their own findings because they don’t trust the findings of the government.

Between now and October DEP is supposed to be getting this information from the industry and any other stakeholder groups and proposing a new rule in the spring of 2020 that will go for another round of public comments and get before the legislature again in 2021. In essence it’s a two year delay to study this some more. The industry is going to have a lot of sway in this. What we didn’t hear specifically, only in generalizations, is that certain chemical manufacturers are going to have a hard time complying with these new standards. But when the rep from Dow Chemical was on the witness stand and questioned by the legislature she said she couldn’t answer any questions, she wasn’t allowed to, that they had to be submitted in writing. I don’t know if that ever even happened.

It’s hard, we’re supporting the science, but it seems at the end of the day these general statements that it’s going to create job losses for West Virginia because these companies are going to pay more to comply won.But we don’t even know how much they’d have to pay. That doesn’t seem to matter to these legislators who say the industry says just trust us. The industry says this isn’t great for us, just trust us on that.

Isn’t that just a microcosm of American lawmaking in general?

Yeah, and it’s counter to science-based facts on this. On the state and national level it seems science gets pushed aside over political and financial gain. When it comes to protecting public health risks that is a dangerous way to operate. What’s disheartening to me is that we’ve got one of the highest cancer rates in the country and I can’t believe we’re not being protective of our residents instead of just dragging this out and coming up with economic reasons why it’s not worth protecting our residents or why they don’t believe in the science.

The legislature is Republican controlled right?

Both the Senate and House are Republican controlled and we have an interesting governor who is now Republican but was elected as Democrat then announced he was changing. That created some political chaos.

[side note: his name is Jim Justice lol and he’s the richest man in West Virginia and of course he’s a coal baron and of course he inherited the business from his father]

What are some of the common pollutants we’re talking about here?

Cyanide and DDT are a couple people would recognized, but there are a lot you can’t even pronounce. When you start reading about their health effects, over half of them are known or suspected carcinogens. People bring this up too and it’s true, we only regulate sixty of these when there are tens of thousands we don’t regulate and don’t know much about, and that’s been coming to light in West Virginia. Dupont had a chemical that was part of the Teflon making industry. There was a big settlement ($670 million) around all of the problems they’ve caused with people’s health over the years.  We had a big chemical leak in Charleston that poisoned the drinking water a couple years ago. It was a coal chemical that’s not regulated, it’s not on the list of standards. It’s hard for me to reassure people because there’s a lot you don’t know about what you don’t know. The chemical that poisoned the water in 2014 smelled like licorice. It caused rashes. People were aware just by the odor that it was in the water. I often think about the things that don’t have an odor or immediate effects like we’re discovering long term.   

And the coal industry remains a controversial issue there as well right?

They recently lowered the coal severance tax. They bussed a bunch of coal miners in to be in the gallery the day that vote was taken. Lowering that tax will cost the state sixty million dollars a year and then we say we don’t have any money to help with other needs. The proponents of that bill say it might save one hundred to five hundred jobs.  One hundred jobs for sixty million? The state is losing a lot of money for one job. That to me just illustrated where we are politically and just kind of this political-paralysis when it comes to doing anything that might draw opposition from the industry. The coal industry is still culturally and politically a big force but when you look at the economics...

Is it safe to say that these big chemical companies are donating to politician’s campaigns?

Yeah… I haven’t taken a real close look at that myself, there’s a whole other conversation happening every year in our legislature about disclosure laws. They attached a bill this year to raise the caps on campaign donations… I’m not real schooled on our disclosure laws and how PACs are formed. Anecdotally I’ve heard about a lot of donations coming through these PACs, but it’s hard to tell who’s behind them. It’s very common. Last year one of the exciting moments that got some attention nationally was a citizen during a public hearing on a water issues got up there and started listing all of the campaign donors to the committee chair and literally got dragged out of the hearing. Her name is Lissa Lucas.  So there is that assumption and expectation. Oil and gas is another big lobby in our state and it is becoming bigger, and they also got their severance taxes decreased. It’s pretty blatant. People can draw their own conclusions from that.  There’s a sense of pride in some legislators on how much they can help the industry grow and ease their environmental requirements and responsibilities.