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Protecting ourselves ... from ourselves

By Peter St. Onge
Associate Editor
Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

If you want to understand why the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission made a mistake this week by allowing fracking companies to keep secret the chemicals they pump into the ground, take a glance northward to West Virginia.

There, more than a week after a 7,500-gallon chemical spill was discovered in Charleston, residents are still afraid to step under the stream of a shower. Pregnant women are being advised to take extra caution around water. No one knows when a glass from the kitchen faucet won’t be half-filled with anxiety.

Some obvious caveats here: Pumping chemicals in the ground for energy exploration is different from letting chemicals flow into a river. No one – at least no one reasonable – is assuming that fracking companies willfully endanger public health, as apparently happened with the company responsible for the West Virginia spill.

But this latest industrial incident reminds us of one assumption we can make: Businesses are like seventh-grade boys. Most are not bad. Most don’t want to hurt anyone. But they think first about what’s good for them – and secondly, well, the same.

If your seventh-grade boy is not at all like this, congratulations. You either have an uncommon 12-year-old, or you have an impressive capacity for self-delusion.

Come to think of it, so do many business-friendly legislators.

Here’s your sum-it-up moment from the West Virginia spill. On Jan. 9, a few hours after Charleston residents began complaining about licorice-like odors, two state inspectors showed up at the tank farm of Freedom Industries.

On that Thursday morning, according to the Charleston Gazette, the inspectors found a 400-square-foot pool of clear liquid had collected outside a white tank above the Elk River.

Says the Gazette:

A 4-foot wide stream of the liquid - thicker than water, but not as heavy as syrup - was flowing across the bottom of a containment dike. The flow disappeared right at the joint where the dike’s wall connected to its floor.

Freedom Industries had set up one cinder block and used one 50-pound bag of some sort of safety absorbent powder to try to block the chemical flow, state Department of Environmental Protection inspectors say.

“This was a Band-Aid approach,” said DEP air quality inspector Mike Kolb.

This also is what you do when you want something to go away. Such is the nature of business – to avoid crisis, because crisis is costly. So sometimes, when it arrives, you look for a solution that doesn’t involve telling anyone. Otherwise, you admit only what you have to, only what people already know, only what will minimize the damage – to yourself.

It’s self-preservation, and truth be told, it’s not just an affliction of business and seventh-grade boys. Sometimes, we’re smart enough to understand that the best way to limit damage is to come clean right away. But often, we need a little help.

The issue surrounding the secrecy of fracking chemicals is largely one of timing. Companies want to release the ingredients in their secret sauce only after a spill or some other accident. Fracking critics say the information should be given to the state now, so that access can be had immediately, not just when the drilling company decides there’s sufficient urgency.

The critics are right. Hours, even minutes, are more critical during a chemical crisis than the potential compromise of a trade secret. But the bigger issue, with both the secrecy of chemicals and safety of fracking overall, is trust. How much should legislators and the public rely on companies to do the right thing, right away, when something goes wrong?

Because sometimes it does. An Associated Press report this week revealed that in Pennsylvania, where fracking is allowed, at least 106 water-well contamination cases have been confirmed since 2005.

Accidents happen. But what happens next? North Carolina still has an opportunity to better protect its residents. Doing so acknowledges what everyone already knows – not that business is evil, but that it can be very human.

Email: pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
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