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

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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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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