The Cuyahoga River last caught on fire in 1969, but had burned uncontrolled on numerous occasions dating back to the latter half of the the nineteenth century. The river flows north through northern Ohio and Cleveland into Lake Erie. Numerous industries discharged wastes into the river to the extent that at times the river was coated with several inches of highly flammable sludge.
The 1969 fire along with a growing environmental movement resulted in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The waters of the nation have benefited from the laws, but problems still exist, especially when it comes to our demand for cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels and even cheaper food.
In one of the ironies of our time, a chemical used to clean coal means that the drinking water of Charleston, West Virginia is not so clean. In January 2014 several thousand gallons of an industrial chemical leaked from a Freedom Industries storage tank on the banks of the Elk river, just upstream of the drinking water intake for several hundred thousand people. To this day, some residents of the area refuse to drink the water as it still smells faintly of licorice.
In North Carolina, the Dan River has recently been contaminated by a pipe failure from a coal ash containment pond owned by Duke Energy. The river and even groundwater are now polluted with sludge that is highly contaminated with Arsenic, a heavy metal that is both toxic and carcinogenic. There are fears that the massive 40,000 ton spill is not over as another pipe may be leaking.
What these Clean Water Act violations have in common is that both were easily preventable. Had the responsible corporations taken care of business, the spills would never have happened. And had the responsible regulatory agencies done their job the problems that caused these spills would have been prevented. But no, businesses don’t want to spend extra money and taxpayers don’t want to properly fund the agencies that provide oversight.
A similar disaster is brewing in Arkansas. In our case it is not the result of industrial use of fossil fuels but the industrial wastes from a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO.) The hog farm, the first of its type in the watershed of the crown jewel of Arkansas, the Buffalo National River, was permitted by a deeply flawed process. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality granted a general permit for the operation. It did not consider the sensitive location in the Buffalo watershed, nor consider the uniquely porous limestone geology of the Ozarks.
Thousands upon thousands of gallons of liquid wastes, urine and feces, are contained in two ponds. The permitted design required only enough free board to contain a 25 year rain event. When the dirt bank ponds are breached, they will likely fail catastrophically, releasing the wastes into Big Creek and a few miles downstream, the Buffalo River National Park. Even during times when the banks hold, the clay lined ponds are allowed to leak wastes through the soil. Because of the Karst topography, the wastes can make their way rapidly to pollute the nation’s fist national river. Its not a matter of if but when.
Why do we continue to set ourselves up for these kinds of disasters? Because of short sightedness. Because we just can’t seem to learn that proper regulation of industry takes careful oversight, and the funding to provide for it.