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Titans of industry must take responsibility for mistakes

By Vinay Maliakal
On February 2, 2014

Imagine awakening to the news that your tap water was rendered unusable. Simple tasks such as brewing coffee or bathing would now be dangerous. This nightmare was a reality for residents of West Virginia following a massive chemical spill. Water, a basic necessity that most of us take for granted, became a luxury.
On Jan. 9, 2014 a 35,000-gallon industrial chemical tank owned by Freedom Industries ruptured, spilling its contents into the Elk River. The chemical that seeped into the river, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, gives off a scent similar to licorice and is known to lead to headaches, irritation of the eyes and skin, and difficulty breathing with long exposure to high doses.
This seemingly small incident would soon have profound consequences on many residents of West Virginia, affecting as many as 300,000 people across nine counties. The severity of this crisis led to the closing of many schools, restaurants and other businesses, essentially bringing much of life to a stand still. Residents of the affected areas relied on foreign sources of water, including bottled water and large tankers brought by the National Guard.
It's alarming how regularly these large disasters seem to be recurring; this recent spill was the third chemical accident to occur in the region in the last three years. Should this be an expectation now, that large companies will slip up every now and then and cause massive calamities? This seems to be the direction society is headed in, progressing toward a common acceptance that this is a relatively small price to pay for the advancements and convenience these industries provide.
There is no question that without the efforts and research of these large companies, we would not have progressed nearly as far as we have. Collectively, we have reached the point of reliance on what these businesses produce and provide-there is not much debate over that. However, what remains in dispute are the mistakes we must contend with-mistakes that seem to only be increasing in frequency.
It would seem that companies would take extra precautions to avoid large disasters with all of the widespread consequences associated with them, not to mention the negative media attention that is garnered and the financial losses incurred. Yet, these large disasters seem to continue as a result of cutting corners and gross negligence by both employees and executives. Like the banks of the 2008 financial crisis, are these companies simply too big to fail?
I believe that should never be the case. Large businesses must shoulder the responsibility for the chaos they create, not continue onward with impunity attained through a few large tax-deductible donations.
These are not simple mistakes. They are catastrophes that affect many. In the case the Elk River chemical disaster, there are still various unknown consequences that may continue to plague later generations.
Let us not forget the notorious B.P. Oil Spill of 2010 in which an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico caused petroleum to gush forth for 87 days. The results were catastrophic and required a massive, concentrated effort to contain. Many rushed to protect various beaches, wetlands and other areas teeming with delicate wildlife from the coming black tide.
To this day, almost four years later, the effects are still being dealt with in areas close to the coast. This was not a simple cleanup, as B.P.'s advertisements would have you believe. This was a bona fide scarring of the Earth. It was a destruction of various ecosystems and animals, replacing wetlands once teeming with diverse wildlife with a dark wave of negligence.
Is this the sort of legacy these companies hope to leave behind? The message they are sending is a total disregard for the sanctity of the Earth and for their children and their children's children. It is selfish and unjust.
It's understandable that companies may make mistakes on occasion, but when you are dealing with resources and undertakings on a massive scale, a higher standard must be met as the consequences are much more potentially devastating.
For the sake of the planet, I hope that these executives and companies come to realize there is much more on the line than their salaries or their reputation, petty woes in the scheme of things.
What's really at stake is the fate of the place they call home, of where later generations must inhabit in whatever state it has been left in and of Earth and its majesty. 


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