Letter from the US: Toxic waste shows how system fouls things up

March 15, 2014
A water sample taken from the poisoned Elk River in West Virginia.

The dangers of global warming due to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is well-established. But there is more damage done by the capitalist system of production, including the release of toxins into the atmosphere, water and the rest of the biosphere.

Two notable examples have occurred in the first months of this year in the United States.

In January there was a huge spill of 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM, a chemical mixture used in the coal production process, into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia.

The water of about 300,000 people was poisoned. The authorities told people not to drink, bathe or wash dishes in the polluted water. Some got sick.

This caused a huge crisis. People had to use bottled water or water trucked in. After about a week, the federal and state authorities lifted the ban, but few were stupid enough to resume drinking it. What came out of their taps stunk of the licorice smell characteristic of the poison.

Officials had to repeatedly backtrack, at first telling pregnant women not to drink the stuff and then resuming distribution of bottled water. This was hardly reassuring. After two weeks, another chemical was discovered in the water.

A month after the spill, schools in Charleston had to send students home when students and staff smelled the chemical in the schools’ tap water.

People understandably do not trust the state and federal authorities as to what is a “safe” level of MCHM to drink, as there are no reliable studies. Some residents have taken to collecting rainwater.

The MCHM leaked from storage tanks operated by Freedom Industries. The tanks were not subject to any regulations or inspections, making state a federal officials part of the problem, not the solution.

In fear of huge lawsuits, Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy.

The Elk River spill concerned part of the coal production process. Another spill last month related to coal ash, the residue after coal is burned.

The company involved was Duke Energy, which operated a coal-fired electrical generation plant on the Dan River, along the North Carolina/Virginia border. The spill was from the pond where it dumped the ash.

About 82,000 tons of coal ash (Duke later lowered the estimate) and 27 million gallons of coal ash-contaminated water spilled from the holding pond into the river. Toxic metals ― including arsenic, lead and mercury ― threatened the communities that use the river for water.

Coal ash has escaped regulation. The federal Environmental Protection Agency did not recognise coal ash as hazardous. Now the EPA says it will issue the first rules about it.

Trade groups such as the American Coal Ash Association, of which Duke is a member, has until recently ghostwritten EPA rules and pressured the EPA to delay its promised rulings.

The New York Times reported: “Last June, state employees in charge of stopping water pollution were given updated marching orders on behalf of North Carolina’s new Republican Governor [Pat McCory] and conservative lawmakers …

“From now on, regulators were told, they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible.”

If they didn’t like the change, the state employees would be sacked.

Last year, the state environmental agency reached an agreement with Duke over its coal ash ponds, which weren’t lined to prevent leakage as regulations stipulated. There were minimal fines, but no order that Duke remove the ash.

Pat McCory was a manager for Duke Energy for 28 years. He was the mayor of Charlotte where Duke is headquartered before being elected governor.

“Critics say,” the NYT reported, “the accident, the third-largest coal ash spill on record, is inextricably linked to the state’s new environmental politics and reflects an enforcement agency led by a secretary [John Skvaria] who suggested that oil was a renewable resource and an assistant secretary who, as a state lawmaker, drew a bull’s-eye on a window in his office framing the environmental agency’s headquarters.”

In these two instances, reactionary state governments were implicated, but lax regulations and enforcement are a national problem.

More fundamentally, they illustrate how the capitalist system itself is an enemy of the natural environment on which humanity is ultimately dependent.

Freedom Industries and Duke Energy were operating under the imperative to protect and if possible to raise profits by minimising costs ― refusing to take even minimal steps to guard against these leaks.

The costs to society at large were disregarded. In their cost-effective analysis, they balanced the costs of protecting against possible leaks versus any costs to them of being forced to pay for some of the cleanup of any leaks.

Part of this calculation was that in the event of leaks, some of the clean-up costs would be paid by state and federal governments, and that most of the damage done would never be compensated at all.

These types of calculations are not limited to Freedom Industries and Duke Energy. All capitalists must make similar decisions, not because they are evil people, but to protect profits under the lash of capitalist competition.

Individual capitalist enterprises cannot be expected to solve the social problem of environmental destruction of which the practices they profit from are the source. Social solutions must be found.

Reforms are possible. For example, because of the public outcry from the people affected by the Elk and Dan River spills, there may be some tightening of regulations.

But the bulldozer of the capitalist system is riding roughshod over the planet. As well as global warming, billions are without safe drinking water, people in Beijing are walking in masks and unable to see more than 100 metres ahead of them, there are toxic spills, nuclear disasters such as Fukushima, dangerous fracking ― the list goes on. This is all making it clearer that it is the capitalist system itself that is at fault.

The ecological crisis in the end cannot be solved under capitalism. It will require socialism, the social ownership of the means of production under rational democratic planning replacing anti-social capitalist calculations to maximise private profit.

Socialists today have a key role to play in the fight for immediate reforms. Real reforms will have to target the guilty capitalist enterprises and any in government who cover for them, which has an anti-capitalist dynamic. They will also oppose fake “market” reforms, one of which is “carbon trading” which boils down to paying for the right to pollute.

At the same time, socialists should step up their efforts to win environmentalists to the understanding that the ecological problem is at root capitalism.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]

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