Energy

Forget West Virginia. Chemical Spills Are an American Tradition


The chemical spill in West Virginia may seem to many like a rare catastrophe, and the sheer scope of a man-made calamity that could deprive hundreds of thousands of drinking water for days will naturally garner widespread attention. Perhaps even more alarming is that this type of thing happens all the time. Even a quick dig through U.S. media reports and other data find no shortage of spills:

An analysis by CBS found more than 6,500 domestic incidents in 2010 alone. Considering spills, leaks, fires, and accidents, an average of 18 per day took place in a single year.

• From 2001 to 2010, there were 992 oil and gas fluid spills in three Colorado counties alone.

• From 1975 to 2012, Canada’s province of Alberta averaged two crude oil spills per day throughout the entire 37-year period. There were 28,666 oil spills in total, along with 31,453 additional spills of other substances (salt water, liquid petroleum, and so forth).

• According to data tracked by Bloomberg, within a sample of 76 American publicly traded companies that self-report these sorts of incidents, there were 3885 total spills in the past year alone. Ten different companies self-reported over 100 spills each.

• The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency compiles a Toxics Release Inventory, tracking leaks into land, air, and water. Bloomberg analyzed discharges affecting streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans in 2011 and found some shocking results. All told,  1,374 different facilities were involved in leaking 287 chemicals, for a total of 194 million pounds of chemicals released.

That’s right: Almost 10,000 tons of chemicals spilled into U.S. waters in just one year, and these are just the numbers reported; certainly, more go uncounted.

Given the amount of industrial work that goes on in this country, perhaps the number of accidents is low, compared to worst-case scenarios. No matter what number might define an “ideal” or “acceptable” number of spills, we’re probably not there now. Spills are ubiquitous, and with numbers that big it’s only inevitable that one would affect local drinking water. Perversely, if we are all alive today—despite so many ongoing spills—maybe that helps bolster Freedom Industries’ defense in West Virginia—the water isn’t that dangerous, compared to what else is out there.

The lesson here is we shouldn’t be surprised, shocked, or awed when a spill happens. They happen all the time, every day.

Eric-chemi
Chemi is head of research for Businessweek and Bloomberg TV.

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