Monday, January 13, 2014

Critics Say that latest NYT headline on WV chemical spill uses bad framing

On A8 of the print version (and also online) today, the New York Times featured an article on the history of weak environmental regulation surrounding the Freedom Industries chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia.

The headline? "Critics Say Chemical Spill Highlights Lax West Virginia Regulations"

Yes, to the New York Times, this is apparently a matter of he said/she said debate. The lax regulations in West Virginia are a mere allegation, an interpretation from a group of "critics." Some might view the regulations as weak, but others--the headline implies--might not. And who is the Times to judge?
Interestingly, the introduction in the NYT digest email hints at a far better title and frame:
The chemical spill in West Virginia has brought renewed focus on the state's troubled history of environmental disasters.
"Chemical Spill Brings Renewed Focus to Lax West Virginia Regulations" 
The language of "focus" still places the origin of critique outside, but it does not resort to evasion in the way the current headline does.

The article begins by noting that the storage facility had not been inspected since 1991--even though it was close to a water source.
“We can’t just point a single finger at this company,” said Angela Rosser, the executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “We need to look at our entire system and give some serious thought to making some serious reform and valuing our natural resources over industry interests.”

She said lawmakers have yet to explain why the storage facility was allowed to sit on the river and so close to a water treatment plant that is the largest in the state.
Ms. Rosser and others noted that the site of the spill has not been subject to a state or federal inspection since 1991. West Virginia law does not require inspections for chemical storage facilities — only for production facilities.
The article also highlights the recent history of violations of environmental and safety regulations:
This is not the first chemical accident to hit West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley.
After an explosion at a West Virginia chemical plant owned by Bayer CropScience killed two employees in 2008, a 2010 congressional investigation found that managers refused for several hours to tell emergency responders the nature of the blast or the toxic chemical it released. It also found that they later misused a law intended to keep information from terrorists to try to stop federal investigators from learning what had happened. The plant manufactured the same chemical that was processed in a giant 1985 explosion that killed 10,000 in Bhopal, India.

West Virginia is also no stranger to accidents in the coal industry.
In 2012, federal prosecutors charged David C. Hughart, a top executive at Massey Energy, a West Virginia coal operator, with a felony count and a second misdemeanor conspiracy count related to the deaths of 29 coal miners in a 2009 explosion at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine. Prosecutors said that Mr. Hughart and others knowingly conspired to violate safety laws at Massey’s mines and worked to hide those violations by giving advance warnings of surprise inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

In 2009, an investigation by The New York Times found that hundreds of workplaces in West Virginia had violated pollution laws without paying fines. In interviews at the time, current and former West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection employees said their enforcement efforts had been undermined by bureaucratic disorganization; a departmental preference to let polluters escape punishment if they promised to try harder; and a revolving door of regulators who left for higher-paying jobs at the companies they once policed.
The article also features commentary from environmental activists and lawyers in the state:
“West Virginia has a pattern of resisting federal oversight and what they consider E.P.A. interference, and that really puts workers and the population at risk,” said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a lecturer in environmental health at George Washington University.
“Whenever you have a discharge of a pollutant or a hazardous substance you have potential violation of the environmental laws,” said Booth Goodwin, the United States attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, according to a news report on
In June 2009, four environmental groups petitioned the E.P.A. to take over much of West Virginia’s handling of the Clean Water Act, citing a “nearly complete breakdown” in the state.

“Historically, there had been a questionable enforcement ethic,” said Matthew Crum, a former state mining director at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Cindy Rank, chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy’s mining committee, said that the coal lobby has wielded great influence in crafting state environmental regulations. “Accidents are always preventable. For the most part I think that’s true in these disasters that keep happening,” she said. She recalled negotiations over a groundwater protection bill from the early 1990s. “We swallowed hard and allowed the coal industry to get away with a lot in that bill,” she said.
The only alternative picture comes from Randy Huffman, the secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Protection:
But Mr. Huffman disputed that accusation, noting that West Virginia’s economy is more heavily dependent than other states on the coal and chemical industries. “Based upon the types of industrial activity, how does it compare to the rest of the country? It’s not in context.” Although he added, “That’s no excuse for any incident where someone gets hurt.”
However, that argument amounts to little more than "Our regulations are weak because we are all captured by the coal industry." The message is ultimately the same. 

The article provides evidence past and present of a weak regulatory system captured by coal and chemical interests and the human and environmental damage that results. It should have a headline to match.

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