Why did West Virginia officials have to order 300,000 people to give up tap water in and around Charleston, the state capital, for days? In part because they didn't know the health risks associated with 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, the chemical that spilled from riverside storage tanks and into the water supply last week. And they still don't, according to an Environmental Defense Fund analysis, because information on its risks to humans is amazingly scant.
Americans see pictures of brown, pollution-packed air in Beijing or red, chemical-saturated rivers in Hungary and may assume that the time of such spectacular environmental dangers has passed in the United States. That's in large part because of regulations from the last century that protect the air and water against the riskiest sorts of pollution. But those laws sometimes fail because they aren't perfect or because they aren't perfectly applied.
The West Virginia water emergency reflects both. According to the state's environmental chief, the storage plant dates to 1938, a time before modern environmental regulation. A downstream water treatment plant was old, too. Some rudimentary federal reporting and permitting rules covered the chemical storage site. Yet federal and state oversight were inadequate. The site was last inspected in 1991.