CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last Wednesday night, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin continued the now-familiar refrain of West Virginia officials who oppose tough environmental regulations, especially if they are aimed at the coal industry and issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In his State of the State address, the governor promised he would, "never back down from the EPA because of its misguided policies on coal."
By the weekend, Tomblin found himself blasting the leak of a coal-cleaning chemical into the Elk River, and confronting an ongoing emergency that's left 300,000 of his constituents unable to turn on their taps.
"A chemical leak is unacceptable and must be cleaned up as soon as possible," the governor told reporters during a briefing Saturday night.
Also at the Saturday briefing Tomblin pushed back at a reporter who connected the ongoing water crisis to the coal industry.
"This was not a coal company incident," the governor shot back. "This was a chemical company incident."
On Sunday night he did the same.
"This was not a coal company, this was a chemical supplier, where the leak occurred," he said. "As far as I know there was no coal company within miles."
But critics of the governor and his approach to regulatory matters say that the leak provides an all-too real portrait of ongoing threats to the state's public health that the state does little to address. The leak, at the chemical tank farm Freedom Industries, was just 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia American Water's regional intake.
"We must take a critical look at how to better protect our vital drinking water sources," said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. "Clean water is essential for life. We cannot cut corners in ensuring that our drinking water supply is protected."
Some groups, such as the Sierra Club, pointed more directly at the coal industry, which relies on products like the one involved in the Elk River spill.
"Coal mining communities are faced with the dangers of water pollution from coal mining and pollution every day," said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "This spill pulls the curtain back on the coal industry's widespread and risky use of dangerous chemicals, and is an important remainder that coal-related pollution poses a serious danger to nearby communities."
In a Friday statement, the group Appalachian Voices made a connection between the ongoing regional water crisis and the coal industry that went beyond just the chemical involved.
"An increasing number of private wells in southwestern and central West Virginia, where the spill occurred, have been contaminated by decades of coal mining and processing," the group said. "One result has been an ongoing expansion of municipal water systems to rural communities that would otherwise rely on well water."
At the same time, shrinking revenues and declining investments in public infrastructure have led more and more small communities to contract with private companies like West Virginia American Water to provide drinking water services.
"Driven by profit margins, companies have aggressively consolidated their businesses, leading them to serve ever larger distribution networks from only a handful of treatment plants and drinking water intakes," Appalachian Voices said. That's how, the group said, one chemical spill into one river cut off drinking water access to roughly 16 percent of West Virginia's population.
Meanwhile, other environmental advocates said the chemical spill shows the need for more of a focus on examining threats to major drinking water supplies and ensuring they are protected.
In West Virginia, the state Department of Health and Human Resources writes "Source Water Assessment" reports with that goal in mind.
DHHR's assessment for West Virginia American Water's Elk River intake is more than a decade old. Dated 2002, the report mentions the former Pennzoil facility that Freedom Industries now occupies. But it doesn't mention Freedom Industries, and doesn't appear to take into account the chemicals that Freedom stores on the site in large amounts. State officials have known the identities of the chemicals since at least 2007.