— Amy Mathews-Amos covered five deeply impactful stories in The Observer this year. We thought a proper review of where those stories are now was in order for this year-end issue.
Amidst the many joys of writing feature stories lies one frustration: usually there’s no opportunity to follow-up with readers and tell them how a story progressed after its publication. And so, for my final Observer piece in 2016, I’m providing an update on the issues I covered this past year. Not surprisingly, the results include a mix of good and bad news—much like life itself. So if you’ve been wondering “whatever happened with…,” read on.
The year opened with the improbable news that Congress was poised to reform the impotent Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)—40-year-old law that everyone pretty much agreed failed to protect the public from dangerous industrial chemicals. TSCA was a primary reason no one knew for sure how the coal-cleaning chemical MCHM would affect public health after it spilled into the Elk River in Charleston in January 2014, or when anyone could safely drink the water again. That’s because, like 62,000 other chemicals in the American marketplace, MCHM was grandfathered into the original TSCA back in 1976. That means everyone assumed it was safe, simply because it was already in use. Few had bothered to study MCHM’s health effects.
As predicted, Congress did reform TSCA, substantially strengthening protections for the public. Among other things, the new law requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate all new chemicals entering the market to determine their safety and whether their use should be restricted. Previously, new chemicals simply entered the market unless EPA had a clear reason to think that they might pose an unreasonable risk. That created a catch-22, in which EPA had to access data on new chemicals before it could order a company to collect such data.
In addition, manufacturers can no longer hide behind blanket claims of “confidential business information” to keep information from the public. Such claims will now be reviewed by EPA to determine whether they have any legitimate basis. And EPA is beginning the process of reviewing the tens of thousands of existing chemicals on the market for their safety. Unquestionably, this will be a long process. To help with that process, the law requires EPA to distinguish between high priority and low priority chemicals, and spells out a timeline for proceeding.
Before the presidential election, Richard Denison, a Lead Senior Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit environmental group that supported reform, was optimistic that EPA would do a good job implementing the new law. He noted that, already, EPA has developed regulations covering several existing chemicals, including two paint strippers and tricholorethylene—a carcinogenic solvent that has poisoned water supplies in many locations around the country. And Congress continued to be on board this fall. When Congress passed a funding resolution to prevent a government shutdown, it granted EPA’s request to boost funding for TSCA implementation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) even Tweeted his support for TSCA funding. (Yes, it’s been an odd political year.)
Post-election, EPA’s implementation of TSCA remains a black box. As this issue went to press, Trump had appointed climate change skeptic Myron Ebell to head his EPA transition team. Ebell currently heads environmental and energy policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think-tank. Although neither Trump nor Ebell have directly addressed TSCA, Ebell’s staff routinely criticized TSCA reform efforts throughout the legislative process. And both Trump and Ebell have made their disdain for environmental regulation (of the fossil fuel industry in particular) clear.
So what does this all mean for MCHM? Soon after the Elk River spill, the National Toxicology Program began researching the potential health effects of MCHM. This year, they released their final results. Their conclusion? That the safe drinking water level for MCHM set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) after the spill was, in fact, safe, even though some people could still detect the licorice smell. Tests on rats, fish, worms, and bacteria showed that much higher levels of MCHM did have some effects on these creatures. In particular, researchers observed low birth rates in baby rats whose pregnant mothers were exposed to levels of MCHM much higher than the CDC-recommended level. But when they tracked birth weights for babies in the Charleston area from 2009 through 2014, they found no problems (in fact, birth weights were a bit higher than usual in 2014).
Given these results, and an incoming administration hostile to aggressive EPA regulation, it seems unlikely that EPA will flag MCHM as a high priority chemical for further review.
Pathway to the Park
Last spring, Shepherdstown Recorder and tireless path promoter Lori Robertson was optimistic that more than eight years of planning would lead to a safe path for pedestrians along Route 480 to Morgan’s Grove Park from downtown Shepherdstown. This fall, Robertson was still optimistic.
She and town officials have worked closely with West Virginia’s Department of Highways (DOH), property owners along the proposed route, and a citizen’s Pathway Advisory Committee to identify a preferred option for the path’s design. This preferred option would follow the east side of 480 (nearest Shepherdstown Middle School), run from Minden Street to Morgan’s Grove Park, and include two crosswalks: one to the park and one to the existing pedestrian path along the Route 45 bypass. A path on the east side rather than the west means fewer utility poles will need to be moved, and fiber optic cable recently installed by Frontier will be protected. It also allows for fewer and safer crosswalks, and requires fewer property owners to sacrifice land.
But instead of an eight-foot wide path with a five-foot grass buffer as originally envisioned, the preferred option is a five-foot-wide sidewalk with a curb, buffered by a three-foot shoulder on the road. This makes for a tighter squeeze when walkers or bicyclists pass each other. But path promoters ran into a speed bump last year when they learned that the DOH right-of-way was smaller than they thought. The eight-foot path would have required acquiring property from all property owners along the route.
Remarkably, Robertson and other officials have managed to leverage $65,500 in local (county and town) funds into $610,000 in federal funds for the project. But delays triggered by the redesign and other factors have bumped the budget to $1.3 million. That budget gap, according to Robertson, isn’t a concern. “DOH would not be moving forward with this if they did not think it would be completed,” she said.
DOH is scheduled to make a final decision on the design, and undertake remaining environmental and engineering reviews this winter, to begin construction sometime in 2017.
Help for Victims of Sex Trafficking
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin failed to take up legislation that would make it easier to prosecute sex traffickers and provide more support for victims, despite a “Twitter storm” of Tweets raining down on him from the bill’s proponents. The legislation passed both the House of Delegates and the Senate, but the regular session ended before the Governor could sign it. And he failed to include it in either of the two subsequent special sessions held to address budget and other issues.
Local activists have been raising awareness about the prevalence of sex trafficking in the Eastern Panhandle and nationally in recent years. The non-profit victims group Polaris has ranked West Virginia in their lowest tier for providing support for sex trafficking victims, saying that West Virginia fails to support services such as counseling, job assistance, or housing.
Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer (D-Morgantown), a leading sponsor of the bill, plans to reintroduce it in 2017 to address many of these concerns. In the meantime, the Sisters of St. Joseph, a Catholic congregation of women, has picked up some of the slack. The Sisters are funding an informal task force comprised of governmental and non-governmental officials to conduct an inventory of services available for victims in West Virginia and identify remaining gaps—a first step towards filling those vital needs.
Supporters of what would be West Virginia’s first National Monument are still waiting for Presidential or Congressional action to permanently protect the Birthplace of Rivers region in the Monongahela National Forest. Non-profit groups such as West Virginia Rivers Coalition and West Virginia Wilderness Coalition have garnered support from mayors, businesses, sportsmen, and others throughout the region for a National Monument designation, generating roughly 1,600 letters to federal officials.
The President can unilaterally designate National Monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906, and President Obama has designated more than 20 as his term is ending. But West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director, Angie Rosser, said the White House needs strong evidence that designation has substantial local support. And despite the letters, West Virginia’s congressional delegation hasn’t championed designation. “I think that [congressional support] would put things over the finish line,” said Rosser. “The clock is ticking” on this administration.
Rosser believes the devastating floods this summer in the Birthplace region makes monument designation even more important—as a way to draw tourists to support local businesses. “It’s not only about rebuilding, but rebuilding with a longer-term vision for economic security,” she said. And she’s hearing state officials discuss the importance of tourism to West Virginia’s economy more frequently these days.
“What is our economic future? It can’t be coal. It can’t be natural gas forever,” she said. “We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing, because our kids are leaving.”
Happy Days for Happy Retreat
Restoration plans for Happy Retreat, the historic home of Charles Town’s founder Charles Washington, continue to advance, thanks to the efforts of the non-profit Friends of Happy Retreat and recognition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Trust named Happy Retreat a National Treasure this past June.
According to Walter Washington, President of Friends of Happy Retreat and great-great-great-great-great grandnephew of Charles and George Washington, the Trust is helping supporters develop a strategic plan for the home’s restoration and use as a cultural center for the community. To continue raising the estimated $1.3 million needed, Friends of Happy Retreat is hiring a fundraising consultant and will be making its highly successful September beer festival an annual event.
— Amy covers the environment, history, health, and culture for The Observer. Follow her at @AmyMatAm.