On January the 9th, 2014, 7,500 gallons of a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) leaked from a Freedom Industries storage tank into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia, polluting the drinking water supply for over 300,000 people. The tank had not been inspected by regulators since the early 1990s. The other day a friend asked me if I planned to write a column about this incident. I told her that the whole sad story seemed unremarkable to me, and that I had yet to find an aspect of it to which I thought I could provide a meaningful contribution. Then I read the comment below from a Los Angeles Times story about the events, and I changed my mind.

“Federal inspections are not required because ‘atmospheric tanks’ like the one operated by Freedom Industries are exempt under federal safety inspections because they are not under pressure, cooled or heated — and are not involved in chemical processing, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.” (Los Angeles Times, 1/17/14)

Before I explain why this comment from the LA Times inspired this column, let me provide you with a little more background. MCHM is used in the processing of coal, specifically for a step called froth flotation. I will resist the temptation to provide you with a lengthy dissertation on froth flotation and skip to the point: it removes minerals such as lead and copper from the coal ore. Removing the minerals provides two important advantages: it reduces the generation of harmful emissions when the coal is burned, and it allows potentially valuable minerals to be recovered and sold as co-products. Given recent increases in prices for minerals, particularly copper, froth flotation is becoming an important revenue generator for coal companies.

The comment from the LA Times leaves the reader with the impression that if only this tank was under pressure, cooled or heated, or involved in chemical processing, then it would have likely received routine inspections. From my experience in working in the chemical industry since the early 1990s, let me assure you that this is not true.

In 1992, OSHA established regulations for vessels that meet the criteria listed by the LA Times under the heading of “pressure” vessels as opposed to “atmospheric” tanks. The key requirements of these regulations are listed below.

• Tanks holding contents under pressure are required to have hemispherical tops and bottoms, since these are structurally much stronger than flat ones.

• The tanks need to have a pressure relief system that can prevent the vessel from rupturing and also safely divert its contents to a safe location if higher than expected pressure were to develop inside the tank. This is particularly important if the cause of increased pressure comes from the heat input from a fire outside the vessel. When tanks containing flammable materials rupture due to exterior fires, minor safety incidents can rapidly transform into major disasters.

• Pressure vessels must be scanned periodically to detect small cracks before they become big ones.

These are sound, scientifically-based regulations. If widely followed, they would be quite effective in reducing both the frequency and ferocity of industrial accidents.

In theory, OSHA can come to inspect any facility with pressure vessels for compliance with these standards at any time. In reality, this almost never happens. The number of OSHA inspectors is absurdly small compared to the number of pressure vessels in operation around the country. Therefore, the inspectors only have the capacity to go to large facilities owned by companies whose names you know, such Exxon, Dow, and Dupont. These companies have the finances and expertise to remain substantially in compliance with the pressure vessels regulations.

Industrial accidents almost always occur in second and third tier companies with names you have never heard of until disaster strikes. This time it was Freedom Industries. Last year it was West Fertilizer outside of Waco, TX. Whenever these incidents and disasters occur, the script is almost always the same. Inspections are found to have been infrequent at best and, in situations where they have occurred, follow up has been inadequate or non-existent. Evil chemical industry, right?

While the chemical industry, like all industries, has its share of bad people, to me the answer is a bit more nuanced. All over the country, and particularly in industrial towns like Paducah, KY, and Baton Rouge, LA, there are thousands of small-to-medium-sized chemical plants, often using tanks and other process vessels that are more than 50 years old. When the pressure vessel regulations were promulgated in the 90s, many of these companies hired engineering consultants to evaluate what investments and upgrades would be required to meet the new standards. For these little companies just scraping by financially, the cost estimates were well beyond anything they could afford. They didn’t have the cash, and there was no way they could get financing based on the weakness of their balance sheets. So they put the engineering studies on the shelf and waited. As time passed, the OSHA inspectors never arrived and the engineering studies gathered dust.

Rather than assume that most of the people running the chemical plants are morally compromised, let’s consider why these smaller chemical companies are not sufficiently profitable to upgrade their equipment. Most chemicals are used to make consumer products such as a bowling balls, car doors, shampoos and carpets. As economic policy in the United States has distributed larger and larger portions of the nation’s wealth and income to fewer and fewer people, the vast majority of shoppers can only afford very low-priced consumer goods. This dynamic drives down profit margins for small chemical companies to the extent that they can’t afford to upgrade their facilities, even for safety measures.

I suppose some may think it’s a stretch to list income inequality as a cause of industrial accidents, but I firmly believe this to be the case. So what can we do? This column is already too long for me to now launch into an exploration of economic policy. The short version is that we should follow the advice of Robert Reich, Elizabeth Warren and Paul Krugman. Doing so would revive and strengthen the middle class, which would then allow smaller chemical companies to operate at margins high enough to afford new equipment, and would also provide sufficient tax revenues to hire more OSHA inspectors. Problem solved.

Have a comment or question? Use the interface below or send me an email to commonscience@chapelboro.com.