Friday, January 9, 2015
One Year Anniversary of the Elk River Spill
First, I'm delighted to be a guest blogger on the Land Use Prof Blog. Since I am getting a late start (and that's totally my fault), I may blog into February as well. As Steve's introduction stated, I am the Lead Land Use Attorney at the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic at West Virginia University College of Law. Future blog posts will describe what the clinic does in greater detail. I am also and Associate Professor and teach Land Use and Reslience Law, as well as Water Law.
Although this post is tardy in many ways, the date is appropriate. One year ago today the Elk River chemical spill occurred in Charleston, West Virginia. In the past year, much in the state has focused on the impacts of the spill and possible ways to prevent future spills. Most notably, the West Virginia legislature quickly passed new above ground storage tank statute. January 1 was the deadline for registration and reporting of many of these tanks. Yesterday, the West Virginia Attorney General released a report on his investigation of the spill http://www.statejournal.com/story/27795961/wv-attorney-general-morrisey-releases-chemical-spill-investigation-report
If you are still reading, you may be asking yourself "What does this have to do with land use law?". As I say about almost anything, it has everything to do with land use law! Below is an essay that I wrote that appeared in the WVU Law Magazine that was published early in the Fall Semester. Thanks in part to the wonderful work being done at the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic, the vision that I described in the last paragraph is beginning to become reality.
Although much of the focus in the aftermath of the spill has been on Freedom Industries, and rightfully so, I am equally concerned about the lack of planning and foresight by West Virginia American Water. I have asked "which was there first, Freedom Industries, or West Virginia American Water?" and few, if anyone seems to really know or to have even asked the question. Although both entities failed to take due care, the one the located on the river last should, in my mind, bear the bigger burden. If, for example, West Virginia American Water (WVAW) "came to the nuisance" and located shortly downstream of a company that stores chemicals along the river, what were they thinking?
Even if WVAW was there first, how could they not have back-up plan if the river is contaminated? Accidents happen and WVAW should have a contingency plan to assure that clean water can be delivered to customers in emergency situations.
These reactions doubtless arise due to the land use law lens through which I view the world. Does WVAW have a valid nuisance claim against Freedom Industries? Does Freedom Industries have a valid nuisance claim against WVAW? The situation brings to mind my favorite United States Supreme Court case, Miller v. Schoene, 276 U.S. 272 (1928). In that case, the Virginia state entomologist ordered ornamental cedar trees near apple orchards be destroyed to prevent the spread of cedar rust to the apple trees. But cedar trees with cedar rust do no harm unless they are close to apple trees and apple trees are no threat to surrounding landowners unless that landowner has infected cedar trees (cedar rust does not prove fatal to cedar trees, but it is fatal to apple trees). Both the chemical company and the water provider, standing alone, are valid land uses, but like oil and water, the two do not do well together.
Another issue that comes to mind is the lack of planning by the county (and Freedom Industries for that matter). Companies should not store hazardous substances along a waterway. The location of the storage facilities and the plant meant that the impact of any accident would be magnified many fold. The locations of both parties are doubtless artifacts of history, but the county should have drawn the community together to discuss the potential implications and plan to minimize the hazards. That's called land use planning.
The chemical spill in the Elk River is a horrible incident that has caused damage to the environment and to many citizens of West Virginia. The implications cannot and should not be minimized, and I do not intend to do so. However, some good may come from this horrible incident. My hope is that the spill will prompt the community to engage in a public land use planning process that will prevent some future incidents from occurring and will prepare the community in the case that an accident occurs in the future. Planning for disasters can both minimize the chance of the disasters from occurring and minimize the damages from future accidents that occur. I see signs of citizens mobilizing for such an effort. Although we should never forget the horrors of the chemical spill, planning efforts can ensure a brighter, and safer, future for the citizens of West Virginia.