Hell in ‘almost heaven’: The W.Va. crisis makes a case for regulation

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If aliens were to come down from space to study humankind, they might conclude that the idea of regulating behavior to protect the earthly environment had few friends. In Congress and state legislatures, they would hear regular denunciations of measures that inconvenienced business. They would see citizens voting for these politicians in apparent agreement with their beliefs.

The visitors from space would need to stay until something happened to interrupt the anti-regulation chorus — something like the major chemical spill in the Elk River, which meant days of no drinking water for residents of Charleston, West Virginia’s capital, and the surrounding counties. The truth is that regulations never have enough friends until it becomes obvious they are needed.

As disasters go, West Virginia’s could have been worse — the approximately 7,500 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that accidentally leaked from a 35,000-gallon holding tank is not necessarily fatal although it sickened people.

But the incident still made “almost heaven” a living hell — and raised some troubling questions. What sense does it make that the state didn't regularly inspect those tanks because the facility is used for storage and not processing? (The Wall Street Journal reported that environmental inspectors hadn’t visited the site since 1991.) For that matter, why do dangerous chemicals need to be stored next to a river?

What fools these mortals be, other forms of intelligent life might conclude.

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