Coal West Virginia chemical spill

Published on January 30th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


WV Chem Spill Update: Formaldehyde Is Safe, Coal Is Clean, And Would You Like To Buy This Bridge?

January 30th, 2014 by  

An environmental engineer has reported finding formaldehyde in water samples taken from the area affected by the January 9 West Virginia chemical spill, and though it was only one location the already frayed nerves in the nine-county region have been set on edge once again.

According to a report in the West Virginia Gazette, the samples showing formaldehyde were apparently taken outside of the purview of state officials, who were quick to question the sample taker’s methodology and conclusions.

West Virginia chemical spill

Freedom Industries (cropped) by iwasaround.

That’s fair enough, but now that the topic of formaldehyde has been dredged up, it’s worth taking a quick look back at how the formaldehyde issue intertwines with a couple of other themes we’ve been following along with our sister site, PlanetSave.

1. Formaldehyde Is Safe

Though found in nature, formaldehyde was recently classified as a carcinogen. It has a wide variety of uses in industry, composite wood furniture being just one common example. Formaldehyde has also been identified as a chemical used in oil and gas fracking.

The Koch brothers, whose holdings include natural gas, are also major manufacturers of formaldehyde through one of their subsidiaries, Georgia Pacific, so it’s no surprise that several years ago Koch and GP were linked to The Formaldehyde Council in a campaign purporting to show that formaldehyde is harmless.

The money quote, from a letter to a presidential advisory panel by The Formaldehyde Council:

…scientists agree that formaldehyde does not pose a health risk at typical levels of exposure. Americans should feel confident in the knowledge that formaldehyde-based products are safe.

That campaign was conducted in advance of a long-delayed ruling on formaldehyde by the National Institutes of Health. As for the reason behind the delay, one of the Koch brothers – David – happened to be on the board of a cancer advisory agency affiliated with NIH. The decision to classify formaldehyde as a carcinogen occurred in 2010, when he was pressured into stepping down.

2. Coal Is Clean

The Koch holdings also include a good deal of coal and the brothers have been generous funders of numerous climate science denial groups including the notorious Heartland Institute.

Georgia Pacific manufactures a number of products used by the coal industry under the brand name Talon, which it launched in 2008 in partnership with its designated distributor, Freedom Industries. Yes, that Freedom Industries.

Before you jump the gun, let’s note for the record that the relationship was over by the time of the January 9 spill. GP states that Talon products were not involved in spill and were for that matter not stored at the facility.

However, the role of a coal-related product in the West Virginia disaster (the spilled chemical was Crude MCHM, a product used to “wash” coal) calls into question the whole “clean coal” image that the industry has been so assiduously courting.

3. I Have A Bridge…

The Koch brothers also have a relationship with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has been in the national spotlight recently over some bridge across the Hudson River as well as the disbursement of federal disaster relief funds.

Governor Christie has also been in hot water with environmental groups for pulling his state out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, among other issues.

Here’s a snippet of a recording Mother Jones reported during a Koch-supported gathering attended by Governor Christie back in 2011:

…David Koch introduced Gov. Christie as “my kind of guy.” (The two had previously met in private at Koch’s New York City office, he revealed.)…Christie regaled them over dessert, telling them how, in his first weeks in office, he’d exercised extraordinary executive powers to impound billions of dollars in planned spending. (“The good news for all of you and for me,” he said, “is that the governorship in New Jersey is the most powerful constitutional governorship in America.”)

While that phrase “most powerful constitutional governorship in America” sinks in, take a look at a letter from West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to FEMA on January 27, in which he urgently pleads for long term assistance. Some snippets:

…hotels and restaurants have lost $1,000,000 in revenue a day while other businesses have had to close part of their operation…a total economic loss for the citizens, businesses, and governments of this area that will exceed the direct emergency protective measures we are providing many times over.…

…many people no longer view their tap water as safe and are continuing to demand bottled water to meet their potable water needs. It is impossible to predict when this will change, if ever.

Getting back to that formaldehyde discovery, given all the misinformation ginned up by groups like those funded by the Koch brothers, it’s no wonder that  the people of West Virginia don’t know where to turn for reliable answers. Unfortunately, Governor Tomblin is likely on point with his feeling that distrust of the water supply could be a lasting feature of life in a good portion of his state.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • CaptD

    Here are just a few examples of Government “solving ” Environmental problems with paperwork changes to laws that in reality only make things less healthy for all:

    GOP guts EPA

    Another Regulatory failure because there can be no true public oversight unless the public has access to critical information about its own safety! The Government has continued to change safety regulations to protect the very industries that it is supposed to regulate.

    EPA abandons major radiation cleanup in Florida, despite cancer concerns

    … and this is being done by many Countries to support their Big Corp.’s.:

    American Radiation food safety limits 10x weaker than Japan’s, imports from Japan escalate

    UK to Shred Over 80,000 Pages of Environmental Protections | Common Dreams

  • Larry

    Koch Industries has had a history of stonewalling and deliberate attempts to dismantle environmental regulation that goes back at least 35 years. I personally know of deliberate destruction of air monitoring equipment near their refinery in MN in an attempt to prevent state regulators from finding out the extent of their air pollution emissions. That was 35 years ago. I’m sure they have become much more adept since then.

    • CaptD

      Yes we are seeing industry doing whatever they can to protect themselves from being caught breaking the already lax regulations they should be following all in the name of profitability!

      Expect to see far more health problems happen to the youth of today since they are growing up in a far more polluted environment, which will make Big Pharma and the AMA very happy!

      Perhaps this is why there is such a big effort NOT to provide health care fore everyone, Business Leaders know far more will need it in the future!

      • Larry


        • CaptD

          I’m now following you and hope to read more from you but in lower case font!

          • Larry

            Sorry about that. I have very large hands and often end up hitting the caps lock key with the pinkie on my left hand. I’ll try to read before I hit the post key next time

        • Bob_Wallace

          No all caps, please.

  • Steeple

    “Before your jump the gun…”. Pot, meet kettle.

    The Kochs make Formaldehyde. There may be Formaldehyde in a river in W. Virginia. There is no physical connection asserted between these two. Ergo, the Kochs are evil?

    They also make paper towels and toilet tissue. And gasoline. And components for cell phones. When something bad happens involving these products, I’m glad to know that I can simply blame the Kochs and then live the rest of my day feeling morally superior.

    • Michael Berndtson

      When you have a $100 plus billion per year family business and that private business includes food shipping, commodity trading, steel mill waste management, water treatment/supply, petroleum refining and refining waste management, and wood products – and you are pushing to reduce or eliminate environmental regulation – you should expect to become the country’s evil Bond villain. MIT’s David H. Koch School of Chemical Engineering has become the farm system for Koch’s evil empire. These young and enthusiastic Chem. Es can be seen in coveralls, running around all busy like, like Oompa Loompas, inside Kock’s underground lair, as he plans world domination – with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on his lap as a road map.

      • Steeple

        Folks like you make my case better than I ever could. Why go with facts when fiction is so much more entertaining.

        • Michael Berndtson
          • Steeple

            Oh, thanks for clearing that up.

            Yep, they were punished for a benzene leak that occurred 19 years ago. Looks like you made your case. Evil empire. You might even convince some people of similar intellect that you are correct.

          • Michael Berndtson
          • Steeple

            Gee, their Dad did business in the Soviet Union on the 1930s. Eighty years ago. So did Henry Ford. That must be an Evil Empire too.

            You really seem to know how to Google. That must make you an expert on Koch Industries.

            Evil Empire.

          • Michael Berndtson
          • Steeple

            So decided to make a bold statement of position and then do your research afterwards. Sounds like a winning approach.

          • Michael Berndtson

            Isn’t that how things work?

            1) Identify problem

            2) Problem Definition – usually a bold statement

            3) Literature survey – googling nowadays.

            4) Experimental design or research focus

            5) Revisit bold statement made in number 2)

            6) The work

            7) The report

            8) On to the next thing.

            I hope you work for Koch in some capacity and getting a little extra for commenting. You’re surely spending a lot of time defending the brothers or the businesses. They can afford the whitest of white sure attorneys and the best PR people money can buy.

          • Steeple

            No, I don’t work for Koch in any capacity. So you’re wrong again. Clean sweep for you today.

            I just don’t like to see good people who create jobs being smeared by people like yourself who don’t have a clue. Citing Harry Reid as a source? Really?

          • Michael Berndtson

            I like Harry Reid. It makes me sad you don’t seem too. Anyway, I do believe that David H. Koch gifted $125 million to MIT for the School of Chemical Engineering Practice. At least its reported on the school’s website. It seems to be separate from MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering. I’m not sure if you’re a chemical engineer or not Steeple so maybe this isn’t important to you. It is for the field of chemical engineering. And its reputation. Given the Koch is into chemical engineering practices as a company, I wonder how much influence it has on MIT? Koch Industries is heavily into all the fundamentals like phase separation, kinetics/reactor design, transport phenomena, and other industrial processes of converting a commodity into a usable product.

            A concern many of us have is that Koch is interested in water treatment: as packaged systems to sell to industry and municipalities and most importantly and apparently, as a private contractor to take ownership and operate publicly owned water supply and treatment works. As you know Steeple, these things are the subject of this post and is of concern to all of us who rely on drinking water and clean water sources.

            The important question is, can we trust Koch with potable water supply? Especially given its record on human health and environmental protection? Can we trust work product from MIT DHK School of Chemical Engineering Practice doing research and development on municipality water supply and wastewater treatment?

            So we’ll have to wrap this thread up. I’ll admit you truly won the argument.

          • TinaCasey

            Notsofast. This is starting to sound like the old Charlie Chaplin routine where you go around breaking windows and then you go around again selling your services as a window repairer. Part of the reason why communities in West Virginia have to rely on a central water supply can be traced to the contamination of individual wells by the coal industry, here’s one link:


          • Michael Berndtson

            I got tired. Steeple wore me out. Commenting can become an obsession, quickly. A good read on the current and future plans Koch has for water is from the Fortune (cnn money) article I linked in one of the replies above. Paraphrasing here: Koch plans to get into water supply and treatment, since it’s going to be an ever increasingly good business. Your analogy of Charlie Chaplin and windows is almost perfect. Water privatization gives me the jitters with or without Koch’s involvement. A scary, but hopefully not true scenario could be: a company takes over a publicly owned works, works the system to lower operating costs, jacks up rates, and profits. All while limited reporting and disclosure.

          • CaptD

            Another more modern ploy is Big Corp.’s drilling far below surrounding wells and using their high tech pumps to suck up all the water leaving locals no choice but to by water from them.

            This has happened in India and now even the CEO of Nestle has said that water is not a right….

            This is why I say:

            Drinking water will be the next OIL

            Man cannot live without Water!
            Don’t Frack it up… – CaptD

          • Steeple

            I’m not trying to win anything.

            I have faith that MIT knows how to uphold its standards. Haven’t heard anyone complain about the NYC Ballet following a large gift from David Koch.

            Koch is just one of many suppliers to the water treatment industry. I don’t think you need to fear a monopoly there even if you question their integrity (and I don’t)

          • JohnHechtman

            Steeple – re: Koch Bros, “I don’t think you need to fear a monopoly there even if you question their integrity (and I don’t).”

            Too bad – you should. Even a little research will show you that the Koch Bros are not in any way altruists. They are classic lassaise-faire capitalists, who don’t give a d@mn if they hurt people or the environment, as long as they make money. They have a long history of this, and will continue to do so until stopped.

            If you’re not on their payroll, why are you so ardently committed to their defense? Their charitable and philanthropic contributions are pure PR – nothing more.

          • Steeple

            John, I’m sick of people like the author using people like the Kochs as whipping boys with no supporting evidence. Witness the piece above young to link the Kochs to the WV spill simply because Koch produces formaldehyde.

            No disagreement that they are primarily capitalists. You make some bold statements about their disregard for people and the environment. Other than I’m sure you disagree with the public environmental stance, feel free to document your assertions. And would you trade putting them out of business in exchange for approx 80,000 people losing good paying jobs?

            The floor is yours.

          • A Real Libertarian

            “Witness the piece above young to link the Kochs to the WV spill simply because Koch produces formaldehyde.”

            OK, I’ll take a look:

            “That campaign was conducted in advance of a long-delayed ruling on formaldehyde by the National Institutes of Health. As for the reason behind the delay, one of the Koch brothers – David – happened to be on the board of a cancer advisory agency affiliated with NIH. The decision to classify formaldehyde as a carcinogen occurred in 2010, when he was pressured into stepping down.”

            “Georgia Pacific manufactures a number of products used by the coal industry under the brand name Talon, which it launched in 2008 in partnership with its designated distributor, Freedom Industries. Yes, that Freedom Industries.”

            Not so simple now, huh?

            “And would you trade putting them out of business in exchange for approx 80,000 people losing good paying jobs?”

            Yes, in a heart-beat.

          • Steeple

            If you would have read the article, you would have seen that GP have terminated the venture well before the event occurred. But that wouldn’t fit your narrative.

            So you would put 80,000 families out of work to settle a political score? The mind of a Liberal.

          • A Real Libertarian

            “So you would put 80,000 families out of work to settle a political score? The mind of a Liberal.”

            80,000 jobs is not worth the Koch rampage.

          • A Real Libertarian

            “Given the Koch is into chemical engineering practices as a company, I wonder how much influence it has on MIT? ”

            They got George Mason U.


          • Steeple

            Don’t worry. The Liberals have virtually all of the rest of the Universities.

          • Bob_Wallace

            That is a problem for the right wing.

            Facts have a liberal bias….

          • Steeple

            In your world.

            In mine, facts are simply facts and they are what they are.

          • Bob_Wallace

            When one see the right wing media like Forbes and Fox posting absolute crap it’s clear that the right accepts a lot of stuff which has no factual basis.

          • Steeple

            I could say the same about HuffPo or The NYT.

            So what?

            It’s up to us to use our own brains and think things out. The clanging extremes on each end are what they are.

          • Bob_Wallace

            You could say the same, but your credibility would sink lower….

          • Steeple

            There’s never been a better time for thinking people to research their own information, either through affordable travel, electronic search engines, cheap communications, etc…. Just as the era of centralized utilities is waning, so is that of the influence of media giants.

          • CaptD

            That is not factual in the USA where Big Corp.’s are now control over 90% of MSM… We all are being spoon feed Big Sports and reality shows based on T&A while nothing is being mentioned about key issues of the day on the majority of the News shows being presented by them.

            Why should Superbowl receive more airtime that what is happening in Kiev or the ongoing radioactive pollution coming from Fukushima?

            The answer is that MSM is now nothing but a cheerleader squad for the all Big Corp.’s that own them because the FCC has allowed Big Business to take over the airways and bandwidth in the USA…

          • Steeple

            When I was young, ALL of the information was controlled by the media outlets. Travel was prohibitively expensive. Most data had to be accessed via libraries. It was difficult to access, cumbersome to filter and manipulate and generally stale by the time it was released

            Just because plenty of people revel in mindless entertainment doesn’t diminish how much is available. Absent govt intervention, this trend will only continue.

          • CaptD

            What you are missing is that US viewers now have little to no choice thanks to the Corp. ownership of MSM, that is why they are now using the internet to voice their opinions, at least on the few remaining sites that allow comments without requiring a Facebook account (like HP and many others)…

          • just_jim

            Lower than it already is?

            I’d like to see a reference to peer reviewed literature that that is even possible.

          • A Real Libertarian

            “Don’t worry. The Liberals have virtually all of the rest of the Universities.”
            Just like the Evolutionists?

          • CaptD

            I expect to see these same Koch’s (pun intended) also start funding Engineering schools (via grants etc.) in other developed countries to not only memic what is being done in the USA but to provide a global HR source for new engineers with the RIGHT (again pun intended) stuff that will also want to play the game to Koch’s rules, all others need not apply!

      • CaptD

        Thanks for taking the time to post your comments that also include links…

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