"The plan is very old," said Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies, a Morgantown-based environmental consulting firm.
Hansen noted that the only permit Freedom Industries appears to have had from the state Department of Environmental Protection is an industrial stormwater permit, meant to cover runoff from the site.
The permit included no specific discharge limits for any chemicals, leaving it up to company "best management practices" with enforcement by DEP inspections. DEP officials, though, have said that -- prior to Thursday's leak -- the site hadn't been inspected since 1991.
Local citizens complain that state inspectors and agencies aren't aggressive enough, while local political leaders oppose a greater role for federal agencies, especially during the Obama administration.
But like DEP, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration hasn't exactly been all over Freedom Industries over the years. OSHA has never inspected the company, records show. And the EPA, while perhaps pushing for greater regulation of coal-fired power plant emissions, has remained far in the background in the Freedom Industries' situation, refusing to even give media interviews about any federal activities.
Most of West Virginia's representatives in Congress join with Tomblin in their harsh criticism of federal environmental policies, and even when they appear to take a leadership role, it's not always clear they are advocating the strongest possible protections.
For example, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has worked to try to broker a compromise bill to reform the federal Toxic Substances Control Act.
The idea is to, for the first time, require the EPA to review the safety of all chemicals used in commerce. The EPA has tested only about 200 of the 84,000 chemicals in the agency's inventory.
For the current water crisis, TSCA reform is an important issue. The chemical involved "Crude MCHM" has been the subject of very limited testing, and even experts say they don't know much about its potential health effects.
Writing on his group's Internet blog, Environmental Defense Fund senior scientist Richard Denison explained Saturday that, while accidents happen, the West Virginia water crisis "is compounded by the fact that much of the impact of this spill could have been avoided had basic safety information on this chemical been available."
Environmental groups like Denison's favor TSCA reform, but they continue to express concerns that Manchin's version of the bill would usurp the ability of states that want stronger chemical standards to set their own rules.
On the state level in West Virginia, the Tomblin administration has hardly made environmental protection a top priority.
The governor has refused to personally meet with citizen groups who oppose mountaintop removal coal-mining, and a natural gas drilling bill he pushed through the Legislature was greatly weakened after closed-door discussions with industry lobbyists.
When asked on Saturday if he thought West Virginia American Water should have done more to plan for a potential spill from a chemical plant just up the river, or noticed and acted on the contamination more quickly, the governor hedged.
"I'd like to say they should have known," Tomblin said. "But I'm not someone who runs West Virginia American Water."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.