AS emergency crews labor heroically to contain the million-gallon oil spill in the Monongahela River, policymakers should consider issues the accident has raised: The best environmental laws in the world are worthless if not enforced. Ashland Oil Company, whose ruptured tank is responsible for the spill, has conceded that normal testing procedures were not followed as the tank was being put into use. Nor was there any written permit for construction of the tank, as required by law. Where in all this was the federal Environmental Protection Agency? Why was there no active program of inspections of such facilities?
The storage of large quantities of a toxic chemical, even one as familiar as No. 2 fuel oil, is going to have to be rethought. As elaborate and strictly enforced permit regulations as can be imagined will not get around the possibility that sooner or later, a huge metal storage tank will fail. Alternative tank designs can mitigate some of these challenges; these new design developments need to be pursued and required, and the requirements enforced.
Ironically, the Monongahela River has been cited as an example of how polluted rivers can be cleaned up, and the parts of the ecosystem deemed most likely to suffer are certain sensitive species that a few years back wouldn't have been able to live in the river.
Another irony is that for all the anxiety attaching of late to underground chemical storage tanks - notably in technology belts like California's Silicon Valley - this oil spill was caused by an aboveground tank. The EPA recently decided not to impose the same regulations on aboveground tanks as on underground ones.
Fortunately, the oil-spill cleanup industry has come a long way in the past couple of decades. Unfortunately, river cleanups can be more difficult than ocean cleanups. The affected communities face tough going in the weeks ahead. Their best hope is that their good spirits in coping will hold.
As for the rivers: The oil could break down into fine droplets, disrupting the lower links of the food chain. The best hope here is that the weather will help hold the oil together so cleanup crews can contain it with their plastic booms and slurp it up with their giant vacuums.