Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act following the deaths of thousands of people in a Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal, India, and a much smaller incident that injured 135 Carbide neighbors in Institute. Since then, local officials in both government and industry in the Kanawha Valley have said that the area has one of the best emergency planning processes in the country.
Asked late last week how much planning county officials had done for a possible leak from Freedom Industries into the region's water supply, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper was blunt.
"Not enough," Carper said. But Carper also pointed the finger at the water company, saying West Virginia American certainly knew Freedom Industries was there and should have prepared for an accident like this one.
As the state of emergency continues, a wide variety of elected officials and government agencies are issuing statements to respond.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for example, sent out a news release to remind employers that they must provide potable water for drinking and hand-washing in the workplace.
OSHA said it started an inspection Friday morning at Freedom Industries to "assess any potential worker safety and health issues related to the incident."
But the release also noted that the operation "does not have OSHA history," meaning -- as confirmed by a review of OSHA data -- that federal workplace safety officials have never inspected the site.
OSHA inspectors started to examine the facility in November 2009 as part of a program of special emphasis looking at accidents that prompted amputations, records show. But they discovered that Freedom Industries was in the wrong industry classification for that program, and they never did the inspection, said OSHA spokeswoman Lenore Uddyback-Fortson.
Terri White, a regional spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said in a prepared statement that the EPA had deployed personnel to assist with water sampling and to offer "additional assistance" to the state. But White refused to make any EPA officials involved in the effort available for an interview.
During a news conference Friday, Tomblin had harsh words for Freedom Industries. "This discharge of pollutants is unacceptable," the governor told reporters.
Since the discovery of the leak on Thursday, state Department of Environmental Protection inspectors have taken three different enforcement actions against Freedom Industries over alleged water and air pollution violations at the Elk River site.
But agency officials concede that their discovery of the leak marked the first time DEP inspectors had been at the site in more than 20 years.
Initially, the DEP reported that it had no permits for the operation, and that Freedom Industries did not require any permits. The DEP said the company did not manufacture any products, that the operation was "chiefly a storage facility" with "no emissions" and that "the materials it stores are not considered hazardous."
Further review by DEP officials identified an industrial stormwater permit held by the company, but agency spokesman Tom Aluise said that the DEP had not inspected the site since 1991, when it was a different sort of facility and was owned by a different company.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.