Think The W. VA Toxic Spill Is Bad? Read This History Of Environmental Fails

Freedom Industries W. VA chemical spill storage tanks.

The Right all claims environmental laws are bad. This tree hugger’s history of disasters and triumphs up to the W. VA chemical spill shows why we need them. Photo cc 2012 iwasaround via Flickr.

Last week, we learned that Justin Bieber and West Virginia both had cleanup problems on their hands. Clearly, Bieber should be required to show photo ID from now on in order to purchase eggs. For the Mountaineer State the mess was bigger: 7,500 gallons of toxic chemicals spilled into the Elk River.

The basic story of the spill has already been told. But one headline in the New York Times really jumped out. “Critics Say Chemical Spill Highlights Lax West Virginia Regulations,” it read.

Where a tree hugger sees a problem a right-winger sees opportunity.

A “tree hugger” might read that and deduce that the state had problems. Here’s how right-wingers would likely respond. Lax regulation! Great! Let’s move more companies to West Virginia!

At this point we know the right hates regulation. (That is, unless they want to regulate a woman’s vagina.) When it comes to the environment the right sees two sides. There’s black. There’s white. On one side you have free enterprise. That side is pure and good. On the other you have tree huggers. That side is evil or nuts. Regulations “strangle the economy,” right-wingers scream. Regulations “kill jobs.”

Pollution? It only kills fish.

What we need then — besides plenty of bottled water if we live in West Virginia—is a little perspective.

A Tree Hugger History Lesson.

Let’s begin with the term, “tree hugger,” itself. According to Merriam-Webster “tree hugger” was first used as a pejorative in 1965. The definition: “Someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats.”

But now, a tree hugger could be a current resident of West Virginia. Someone who wants to take a shower without having their face melt off.

Okay? Ready? It’s time to dive into a little history. (Maybe not into the Elk River, though.)

1871-1873: Americans get what tree huggers might say was the first wakeup call. Hunters on the Great Plains wipe out 9,000,000 bison. By 1884 only 300 remain. A reporter for Fox Frontier News claims the bison aren’t dead. They’re just faking. The paper also runs a series of exposes on Benghazi.

Mar. 1, 1872: Congress creates Yellowstone National Park. Dick Cheney’s great grandfather shoots a tourist in the face by mistake.

Nine years later the Yellowstone Park Improvement Company has a monopoly on concessions and accommodations in the park. “Uncle” Rufus Hatch, company president, explains how it was done. He brags that he can buy a U. S. Senator’s vote for $5,000. The Northern Pacific Railroad develops a plan to run a line through the middle of the park. (Really, I’m not making this up.)  The first tree huggers block the plan.

(Pro-business members of Congress win a short-lived victory over the tree huggers in 1886. They strip funding from an appropriations bill to pay the park superintendent.)

Stupid progressive ideas! Who cares about the next generations.

In 1890John Muir — our first tree hugger — convinces the U. S. government to create Yosemite National Park. Theodore Roosevelt visits in 1903. Teddy comes away infected with what Glenn Beck today sneeringly refers to as “progressive ideas.” Such as:  We ought to protect the beauties of America for future generations.

John D. Rockefeller reads about Roosevelt’s visit. “WTF, screw future generations. #Robber Barons,” he tweets.

Tree Hugger Paradise (Tioga Pass)

Yosemite National Park — inspired by tree hugger John Muir — near the top of Tioga Pass. Photo by John Viall

1914: Martha, the last passenger pigeon, dies in 1914. Once there may have been five billion of these birds. Right-wingers insist there’s nothing to worry about. Why? Because we still have plenty of crows.

1930s Dust Bowl:  The 1930s proved that conservation might not be such a bad idea. Large chunks of Texas, Oklahoma and assorted western states blow away.

1940s-1950s:  These are glory days for the chemical industry, thanks to the lack of tree huggers. New pesticides kill mosquitoes. New synthetics offer promise of a better life. Look, Ma! No-iron pants!

1962 Silent Spring: Silent Spring is published in 1962. Perhaps not all new chemical combinations are good. Rachel Carson warns that spraying DDT to kill insects is decimating bird populations. Pesticides threaten the bald eagle with extinction. DDT manufacturers hint that their product might actually be good on Ritz crackers.

Vietnam War (1964-1973): The U. S. dumps Agent Orange on the jungle. This is intended to make it hard for enemy troops to hide. The defoliant works great. It kills leaves. Uh oh…it kills trees. It kills fish. And it kills wildlife too. Thousands of U. S. servicemen who are exposed develop a cornucopia of biological and neurological disorders. Even right-wingers are sorry about that.

1968: Polychlorinated biphenyls make news. PCB’s (normally used in coolants) get mixed into Japanese cooking oil. Symptoms of “Yusho disease” develop. They include: skin eruptions, oily eye discharge and numbing of extremities. Three hundred people die. Possible bonus for the next generation: birth defects.

1969 Cuyahoga River Fire

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire due to pollution from oil and other flammable substances. Photo from Ohio History Central.

The Cuyahoga River catches fire!

In 1969, tree huggers were vindicated and the rest of us got a wake-up call when the massively-polluted Cuyahoga River caught on fire! Fox News blames Barack Obama,  more at eight.

Apr. 22, 1970:  The first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency is created in December.

Dec. 22, 1970:  Ted Cruz is born. (His first words soon prove to be: “Repeal Obamacare.”)

1971: Oregon requires a deposit on all bottles and cans. Right-wingers warn this means the end of beer-drinking as we know it.

1972: PCBs found in every major U. S. river system.

1973 Endangered species act: The Endangered Species Act is signed into law (1973). Right-wingers claim all tree huggers care about are salamanders and newts.

1974: Scientists issue the first warning about a thinning ozone layer. CFC’s (chlorine- fluorine-carbon molecules) are the cause. CFC’s are used in hairspray, deodorants and air conditioning. Rising levels of UV rays reach the earth’s surface. National Geographic notes that UV increases “can cause skin cancer and cataracts in humans.”  Other signs of trouble: “reproductive problems in fish, crabs, [and] frogs.” Not good news for humans. Or tree huggers. Or newts.

Right-wingers counter tree huggers with the slogan: “You can take my hairspray when you pry my cold dead hands off the can.”

Scientists warn that acid rain is a problem. Right denies it (they always do).

In the 1970s,  acid rain becomes a concern for tree huggers and others. New England sugar maples die. Leading voices on the right posit the idea that trees commit suicide. Lakes in the Adirondacks turn into what one scientist calls “a witches’ brew of low pH waters.” The fish die. Various fish-eating bird species are pushed toward extinction. National Geographic says fish in 100,000 Scandinavian lakes are wiped out.

1976 Dioxin ban: Dioxin, now known to be a dangerous carcinogen, is banned in the United States (1976). In previous decades companies sometimes buried hazardous wastes in the ground. What could go wrong? Unwitting builders put up lovely homes. Sometimes right on top of toxic waste dumps. In Love Canal, New York, chemicals begin seeping to the surface in 1977. Levels of toxins are so high the area is fenced off and condemned. Nine hundred families lose their homes. Residents, including small children, develop cancer.

1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster:  1979 was a bad year for tree huggers. The nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island nearly melts down. One or two more missteps and a swath of Pennsylvania might have ended up glowing in the dark.

August 24, 1979 Chem-Dyne plant explodes:  Shortly after midnight the Chem-Dyne plant in Hamilton, Ohio explodes. For years the company has operated a chemical waste disposal facility at the site. Sadly, the business model is flawed. Disposing of dangerous chemicals is time-consuming and expensive. What to do? Hey, let’s dump barrels of toxic waste in the canal behind the plant! (The canal runs into the Great Miami River.) What kinds of materials? Oh:  pesticides. You know: industrial solvents. Some “waste oils, plastics, resins, PCBs, acids, caustics, metal and cyanide sludges and lab waste.” Good stuff! Five fish kills in the river and two previous fires are bad signs.

1980 Chem-Dyne goes out of business: In 1980, Chem-Dyne went out of business and the facility becames a Superfund cleanup site. How many of these sites are there today? Well, Alabama has 14, Alaska 6. California has 93 — none of which tree huggers or normal people want to live downwind from if you had a choice. Go to the EPA link and look up your state for fun!

The last original idea the Right ever had:  and it’s wrong.

On January 20, 1981, tree huggers despaired when President Ronald Reagan took office. In his inaugural address he intoned: “Government is not the solution, it’s the problem.” This is the last original idea right-wing thinkers ever produced.

And it’s wrong.

1981-1989 the Reagan years: Ah, the Reagan Years! The Gipper has his moments. But his attitude toward the environment is summed up in one quote. “If you’ve seen one redwood tree,” he says, “you’ve seen them all.” (Or, if lumber companies have their way, “You’ve seen the last.”)

Drill, baby, drill: James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of Interior, boldly explains, “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber.” Watt hates tree huggers. He does! “If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box,” he tells reporters, “perhaps the cartridge box should be used.” (That’s a real quote.)

February 1983: Studies reveal that soil in Times Beach, Missouri is polluted beyond hope. The federal government has to buy the whole town. Cost:  $33 million. A study by the Center for Disease Control is ordered. In Imperial, Missouri, 112 of 130 residents show “abnormalities in blood, liver or kidney function.”

March 16, 1983 report on Dow Chemical: The Cincinnati Enquirer (March 16, 1983) notes that acting EPA chief, John Hernandez, has some new friends. Hernandez lets representatives of Dow Chemical edit an agency report. The draft warns that Dow has been dumping dioxin into rivers and lakes. Someone suggests that the report should read: “Dow is the coolest corporation ever!” EPA officials and chemical company boys share a good laugh. (Regulations aren’t so bad when you circumvent them!)

December 3, 1984 Bhopal, India disaster: On December 3, 1984, forty tons of methyl isocyanate gas (used in pesticides) leak from a Union Carbide plant. Within minutes 3,800 people die. A phalanx of lawyers swings into action. Union Carbide does all it can to help. No, ha, ha. We’re joking. The company tries to weasel out of legal responsibility.

Maine bans billboards. A Maine ban on roadside billboards goes into effect. The last of the big signs comes down in November 1984.

April 26, 1986 Chernobyl disaster:  The nuclear reactor at Chernobyl melts down. Half a million people are exposed to extreme levels of radiation. A large swath of the Ukraine becomes uninhabitable for…oh…the next ten thousand years.

1987:  Americans were producing 400,000 tons of garbage daily.

Sarah Palin and the poo poo choo choo.

March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill: Sometime after midnight, on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez strikes a reef in Prince William Sound. Eleven million gallons of crude oil spill into pristine Alaskan waters. Sarah Palin is twenty-five. Somewhere in Wasilla she can be heard practicing her famous war whoop, “Drill, baby, drill!”

October 1989 “poo poo choo choo”: Baltimore dispatches the “poo poo choo choo.” Carrying a 5,000 ton payload of sewage sludge the train heads for South Carolina. Officials there refuse the malodorous gift. Mississippi authorities also decline. The choo choo chugs back to Baltimore, the Little Engine that couldn’t. Dump sludge, that is.

1991 bison rebound in Yellowstone. Those that leave park limits, however, are shot on sight. Ranchers fear the spread of bison-borne brucellosis to their herds. (See also:  1871-1873.)

July 16, 1991 sewage contaminates Ohio River:  The Cincinnati Health Department issues a famous warning. Untreated sewage has contaminated the Ohio River. Human beings should avoid all “bodily contact” with the water.

1992: Los Angeles air rates “unhealthful” on 124 days. Meanwhile, the Atlantic cod fish stock collapses. Over-fishing is the cause.

1993 study reveals birds in Buzzards Bay, MA have reproductive tract abnormalities. Growing evidence shows dioxin may be a threat to bird, animal and human reproduction. A 1993 study reveals that birds in contaminated Buzzards Bay, MA have reproductive tract abnormalities. These include ovarian cells in male terns. Right-wingers are relieved. At least the birds aren’t gay!

1997 Julia Butterfly Hill occupies a giant redwood for two years: Julia Hill builds a 6’ by 8’ platform in the branches of a giant redwood. She hopes to stop Pacific Lumber from cutting the tree down. Hill remains at her post, 180 feet off the ground, for two years. Another tree hugger, David “Gypsy” Chain, is killed in 1998. Workers cut down the tree he’s in by mistake. By mistake!

Jan. 4, 1998 right-winger links tree huggers to Unabomber: At least one right-wing thinker suggests that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and tree huggers share a similar philosophy. Regulations are bad. Screw the newts! Also the fish and trees.

As long as there are ice cubes…

1998 is the hottest year in recorded history, and some of us became conscious of global warming. (The next nine turn out to be:  2010, 2005, 2003, 2002, 2009, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2001.) Senator James Imhofe will later insist that God is “still up there.” So climate change can’t possibly be happening. Right-wingers go to their freezers, look inside and see ice cubes. This proves (to them) that climate change can’t be real.

2004: In 2004 scientists report that elevated levels of toxins have been found in the fatty tissues of the Inuit people. Apparently, even humans in the Arctic aren’t safe from the spread of pollutants. Scientists also warn that rising sea temperatures tied to climate change threaten Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Jan. 28, 2007 Sean Hannity’s hair gel proves global warming isn’t real: Sean Hannity steps out his front door and heads for work. The temperature is 7°. His hair gel freezes in place. That night he assures loyal Fox viewers that climate change cannot be real. A guest scientist tries to use little words to explain that “weather” and “climate” are not the same. In the face of Hannity’s unflinching stupidity, the poor scientist finally gives up. (Okay, I made that one up. Still, it’s pretty close to what passes on Fox News for the truth.)

Mar. 2008 farm run-off polluting rivers and streams: The Scientific America warns about harmful effects of fertilizer runoff from Midwestern farms. Nitrates in fertilizer seep into rivers and streams. It turns out algae love nitrates! The algae bloom. The oxygen in the water is depleted. Follow the trail down to the Gulf of Mexico and what do you find? An area “the size of New Jersey” where no fish can survive. R.I.P.: crab, lobster and shrimp.

Mar. 2008, prescription drugs turning up in water supply: CBS reports in March that birth control residues, antibiotics and tranquilizers are turning up in drinking water. Forty-one million Americans are affected. Rush Limbaugh finds this news oddly…relaxing.

Disappearing rainforest: Scientists note that 700,000 square kilometers of the Amazon have been cleared since 1970. That’s an area the size of Texas. Native peoples in the Amazon Basin protest. Ranchers, who absolutely, positively need more land for grazing, kind of solve the dispute by shooting them.

Dec. 22, 2008, Kingston Fossil Plant collapses: Roane County, Tennessee. Residents get an early Christmas present. A retaining wall at the Kingston Fossil Plant collapses. A huge pond of wet coal ash is released. More than five million cubic yards of sludge escape. Hundreds of acres of farmland and assorted homes and homeowners are buried in goo.

2009 island nation of Tuvalu warns it may drown in rising seas: Representatives of the tiny island nation of Tuvalu make headlines. They warn that in fifty years their island chain may be swallowed by rising seas. “Climate change is real to us. It’s happening now. It’s a threat to our existence.” Right-wingers insist there has been no evidence of rising seas since Noah built the ark.

April 20, 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill: The Deep Water Horizon drilling rig blows up. Nearly five million barrels of oil spill into the Gulf. Investigators find evidence that safety regulations were ignored. Several employees of British Petroleum are charged with obstruction of justice. BP and others are socked for $50 billion in damages and fines. On his show Sean Hannity says he favors waterboarding tree huggers.

Oct. a scary reminder from Smithsonian: Smithsonian reminds readers the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea. Glaciers across the Andes are melting. By 2020 people in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador will “lose a major source of fresh water.” Similar problems exist in Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean basin.

Rand Paul stands up for freedom (or maybe takes a seat on the can).

On Mar. 10, 2011 U. S. Senator Rand Paul speaks up for the right of every American to sit on the toilet of his or her choice. During a Senate hearing he launches into a diatribe about regulation. Now tree huggers and federal agencies are trying to force people to buy energy efficient light bulbs! And by the way, the low-flow toilets in his house don’t work! He’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it. Watch his screed:


Mar. 11 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster: an earthquake and tsunami slam the nuclear power plant at Fukushima, Japan. Fuel rods in three reactors begin to melt. The company calls for calm. Don’t worry, everything is under control. More than 80,000 people are forced to evacuate their homes. Almost three years later most have not returned.

2011 Grey wolf removed from endangered species list: The grey wolf is removed from the Endangered Species List in 2011. Conservatives love this news because they own so many guns. Hunting season is open! As for the list, they hate if from A to Z. “N’ is the worst! Damn newts! If fact, they wouldn’t care if humans were added to the endangered species list. Not so long as there are trees to fell. And coal to strip. And shale to frack!

May 16, 2012  toxins reported in breast milk: One of the great articles in tree hugger history is published. “What’s Inside Those Breasts?” The author is nursing a baby when she decides to send a milk sample to the lab. What is inside those breasts? Traces of pesticides. Traces of dioxin. Jet fuel residues. And flame retardant chemicals! Drink up kids.

Mar. 2012 fish stock declines. The California Academy of Science reports that 70% of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, depleted, or extinct as a resource. On Fox News, Megyn Kelly denies there’s a problem. Her pet goldfish are fine.

August 26, 2012 arctic ice cap shrinks:  NASA satellite images show the Arctic ice cap has shrunk to its smallest extent ever recorded.

Dec., 2012 male sperm counts dropping: In December scientists also report that male sperm counts are in decline. The drop since 1989 is one-third. Scientists suspect toxins in the environment. Some wonder if the real cause might be tight underwear. Governor Chris Christie decides it might be wise to lose weight. But first:  he needs to go close some bridges.

Jul.,  2013: Congresswoman Martha Blackburn rallies the nuts. On the floor of the House she rails against regulation. Energy efficient appliances are apparently some kind of threat! “First they came for our health care,” she howls like a wounded grey wolf. “Then they took away our light bulbs…now they are coming after our ceiling fans.” Tea Party patriots rush out and buy millions of guns.

Beemagedon: Yes: “Beemagedon!” Scientists warn that the U. S. honeybee population is in collapse. The problem:  “common agricultural chemicals.” Ten million beehives have been wiped out (2007-2013). Tree huggers point out that more than a hundred U. S. crops rely on the honeybee for pollination. Rush Limbaugh says Hillary Clinton and the “feminazis” are to blame. All the dittoheads nod.

China: “We don’t need no stinkin’ regulations!”

2000-to-present:  More products show up on U. S. shelves with a “Made in China” label. This includes GE energy efficient light bulbs. (No joke.) Why? Because the Chinese don’t slap unnecessary regulations on business!  Of course, there are glitches. Like when thousands of dead pigs turn up in a river that supplies drinking water to Shanghai. China is a tree hugger’s nightmare.

Air quality in Beijing sets record for pollution. when air quality in Beijing sets an all-time record for pollution. A reading of 100 means air is harmful for people with respiratory conditions. At 400 the air is harmful for everyone. Beijing air hits 755.

Meanwhile, scientists discover that powerful winds blow air pollution from China across the Pacific. Where does it land? On the western United States! One pollutant, black carbon, does not wash out of the atmosphere. “Black carbon, the New York Times notes, “is linked to asthma, cancer, emphysema, and heart and lung disease.” One out of every seven kids in America now suffers from asthma.

Right-wingers counter:  “So? That means six out of seven don’t!”

Other glitches related to unregulated Chinese business? Toxic lead paint shows up on toys marketed in the U. S. Also: melamine in Chinese dog and cat food kills thousands of American pets! You can’t fool Bill O’Reilly, though. He warns Fox News viewers of a chilling new threat. Tree huggers are secretly behind the “War on Christmas.” They’re coming for the Xmas tree lights next!

As 2013 draws to a close the Solar Energy Industries Association announces a banner year. For the first time the U. S. installs more solar panels than Germany. Cumulative solar electricity capacity in the U. S. is enough to supply 1.7 million homes. Fox News does five hundred stories about the failed solar company, Solyndra. The moral of them all? President Obama was born in Kenya.

Scary Obama…

January 16, 2014:  Fox decides it’s time to divert viewers. Forget the recent spill. Look! Over here! Shiny objects! President Obama is declaring war on coal! First, Obama came for Santa Claus. Then he came for the coal Santa puts in all liberals’ stockings. Finally: look how scary the First Lady looks!

Tree hugger history - war on coal


We’re all in it together, right-wingers, tree huggers and even the newts.

Anyway, that’s enough for one day. Call it ” A Tree Hugger History.” In this light, the problems in West Virginia shouldn’t surprise anyone. Right-wingers have fought regulation every step of the way.

And this fight is sure to continue.

It isn’t just about newts. It isn’t even “us” against “them.” Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

Unfortunately, the delusional right can’t grasp even this simple concept. The issue is keeping the planet livable for all.