Editorial: Safety Reforms
14 January 2014
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Across West Virginia, hundreds of communities
draw their drinking water from creeks and rivers.
Theoretically, all those towns and cities are vulnerable to toxic
spills like the one that disrupted life for 300,000 people in
Kanawha and seven other south-central counties.
Legislators -- who were temporarily knocked out of session by the
water crisis -- are exploring possible law changes to provide
better safety. Bravo. Action is needed.
For example, chemical manufacturing plants are required to make
immediate public warnings after a leak -- but it's unclear whether
the law applies to storage tank farms and shipping docks like the
Elk Valley facility that caused the current headache.
"Warehousing may need to be included in the definition of those
that early report," Senate President Jeff Kessler said -- adding
that this urgency is especially high when the storage facility is
upstream from a water system intake.
Good idea. Amend the law. However, the culprit firm already was
required to report leaks. As reporter Ken Ward Jr. outlined, the
state Department of Environmental Protection had given Freedom
Industries a storm water permit requiring public notification of
If the tank farm had disclosed the leak quickly, West Virginia
American Water might have closed its Elk River intake to prevent
the noxious chemical from entering its 60-mile network of
pipelines to homes, schools and businesses -- and the weeklong
crisis would have been averted.
All reports say Freedom Industries violated its warning
requirement. After nearby residents called authorities about foul
odors, state inspectors Mike Kolb and Dan Bauerle went to the
scene. They told Ward that Dennis Farrell identified himself as
president of Freedom Industries and said "there weren't any
problems" at the tank farm.
But inspectors found an "artesian well" of chemicals spouting from
beside a leaky tank, and a four-foot-wide stream of the pollutant
vanishing into a hole in a faulty containment wall.
Why was this decrepit facility -- founded by a bankrupt Charleston
businessman with a felony record -- allowed to disrupt the lives
of 300,000 West Virginians?
Incidentally, Ward revealed that state inspectors hadn't examined
the tank farm for nearly a quarter-century.
Meanwhile, another reform also is needed. As Kanawha Valley safety
advocate Maya Nye wrote in Tuesday's Gazette, the U.S. Chemical
Safety Board has recommended repeatedly that the Charleston region
create a Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program.
Under an HCRPP, an outside committee of health and safety experts
makes a yearly "audit" of each facility to detect dangers.
Pioneered in California, this safeguard has lowered the number of
tragedies and problems.
Despite repeated recommendations, state officials haven't adopted
this protection for West Virginia.
We hope the 2014 water crisis spurs legislators and other leaders
to impose strong safeguards to protect the public.