Rediscovering the Great Kanawha

Charleston Gazette
23 January 2015

Among the lessons, large and small, to come out of the 2014 water crisis is another way to think about the Kanawha River.

West Virginians can thank Randy Huffman, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, for suggesting that the Kanawha River be restored to “Category A” protection status.

That’s the top standard and is assigned by default to all waterways. A Category A stream is a potential source of drinking water. For decades, the Kanawha River has been too polluted to even consider running it through a treatment plant for people to drink. A 70-mile stretch of the Kanawha east of Charleston has been exempt from Category A protection.

But things change. Environmental understanding, technology and manufacturing processes improve. Just because residents of the Kanawha Valley have grown accustomed to thinking of the Kanawha as undrinkable does not mean that it must always be so. Certainly the contamination of the Elk River last January brought home to everyone the value of having a second source of drinking water.

When the subject of the Kanawha came up before a Legislative committee last month, one short-sighted delegate actually used it as an opportunity to try to accomplish the exact opposite — to remove Category A status from streams all over the state unless they are currently used for drinking water. Enough other lawmakers disagreed, and the proposal for more pollution and less safe drinking water was defeated, at least for the moment.But you can count on it coming up again. The state Manufacturer’s Association, the Coal Association and several members of the Legislature were all for it.

“That’s taking us backward,” Huffman told residents gathered at the Capitol to mark the anniversary of the chemical spill earlier this month. “That’s a policy, a rule change, that we just can’t allow to happen.” Huffman promised to oppose any efforts by lawmakers to take away from West Virginia streams the default status that protects them as potential drinking water sources. His comments drew strong applause.

No wonder. West Virginians know they cannot live without clean water. If people cannot live here, no one’s enterprise will either.

We have repeatedly said that the only acceptable way to come out of the 2014 water crisis is as the people who learned their lesson, who have clean, reliable, trustworthy water. Rediscovering the Great Kanawha River and beginning to protect its purity for the future is a wise and welcome part of that process.

- See more at: