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This week from Charleston

By Staff | Jan 17, 2014

My first column of the new session should be optimistic and hopeful. It should recognize the Governor’s State of the State and his agenda for this year’s legislative session. But just a week after the State of the State, it is impossible to do so because our state has been turned upside down by the chemical spill in Charleston. One in six people in West Virginia were without access to safe tap water. The chemical spill, which led to the shutdown of the water system, prevented the use of water for all purposes other than flushing toilets. Over 300,000 people were directly impacted and thousands of businesses had to shut down. There are more questions than answers right now. These are my top five:

1.How did the leak happen?

2.Why did we know virtually nothing about the impact of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (Crude MCHM), including how to test for it?

3.Was there a Spill Prevention Containment Control Plan on file with Kanawha County and the State DEP?

4.Why wasn’t this facility inspected and shut down until fixed? (Apparently the problem was known and money was set aside for repair but it was never spent).

5.What other potential hazards are immediately upstream from water intakes, and what should be required to address potential hazards?

These are just my first set of questions, and I will not stop asking and pursuing until we have answers to these and a thousand more questions. Right now we cannot even answer the basic question: Is the chemical is still leaching into the Elk River! This crisis should change the conversation in West Virginia, and the complaints about the EPA should be about why weren’t they able to protect us in Charleston. If we cannot guarantee safe and secure water supplies in West Virginia, how can we begin to think about recruiting and retaining skilled workforces and attracting successful businesses? We have taken an enormous public relations hit that has impacted our image across the globe. How do we overcome this? “Almost heaven”, but don’t drink the water?

Someone said this week that if these acts had been done by terrorists, we would be at war. That’s a valid point that reminds us that water is a security issue before an economic issue. Right now, we are not secure. This leak was reported by citizens who smelled it, not by the company. Is that how we expect a chemical leak detection system to work? We are extremely vulnerable, and we do not need to be. We must come together to craft strong laws to protect our water supply and prevent something like this from happening again.