Editorial: State Failed to Protect Citizens

Charleston Gazette
15 January 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The decrepit Freedom Industries tank farm beside Elk River hadn't been visited by state inspectors since 1991 -- almost a quarter-century ago -- before it tainted the water supply of 300,000 West Virginians.

Why? What's wrong with the state's public protection systems? Are laws inadequate to deal with industrial dangers? Is enforcement slipshod?

Charleston reformer lawyer Jim Lees wrote Wednesday:

"For the past decade, I have watched politician after politician in West Virginia bow down to industry-led efforts for less regulation and less oversight -- Jay Rockefeller being the exception."

Lees said West Virginians deserve safe drinking water, just like all other Americans. And it's up to state leaders to impose controls to guarantee it. Amen.

Time after time, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board urged West Virginia to adopt an "audit" system in which teams of independent health and safety experts examine plants and facilities to spot threats. But the proposal was ignored. Why?

Rep. Shelley Capito, R-W.Va., said Tuesday she supports the audit plan. Other West Virginians in Congress are working on federal safeguards. Sen. Joe Manchin wants U.S. regulators to rate the health danger of 84,000 less-known chemicals. "My God," he said, "you've got thousands and thousands of products that have come online that are totally, you know, unevaluated."

Gov. Tomblin says he's working with Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman to draft new safety plans. It's too bad that it took a public crisis to prod officialdom into action -- but we're glad it's finally happening. Protecting West Virginians from this sort of menace should be the top priority of the 2014 Legislature.

The New Republic published a blunt report saying Elk River supplies a wide section of West Virginia because mining has "contaminated local water sources throughout the state's southern and central regions, driving more and more West Virginians to board up their wells and lay pipe to the Elk River." Ironically, it was a mining chemical that caused the Elk crisis.

In 2009, four citizen groups complained to federal agencies about "the state's capitulation to the industries it is obligated to regulate under the Clean Water Act." Their complaint also was ignored.

All these topics should be examined by legislators.

The 2014 water mess inflicted severe disruption on eight counties, forcing closure of restaurants and some businesses, wasting government money, leaving school pupils stranded in limbo. How many children couldn't get school breakfasts and lunches they needed? How many parents couldn't go to work because their kids were out of school?

This huge headache is a wake-up call for the Legislature to make major reforms in safeguards to protect West Virginians.