Statehouse Beat: Water, water, water
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Looking back on a week of water, water everywhere ...
On the positive side:
* FEMA and state Emergency Services did an extraordinarily good job of getting bottled water to the affected communities.
In less than 12 hours from the evening of Jan. 10, when stores had been emptied of bottled water and folks were literally fighting for the last few bottles, bottled water was plentiful and available at multiple free distribution sites and at numerous retailers who were restocked overnight.
A week after the event, emergency officials had distributed about 15 million bottles -- or about 50 bottles per person in the affected area.
Given the state's history of dealing with floods, storms, and the derecho, it's not surprising that state emergency services providers have gotten pretty good at emergency drinking water distribution.
* After stumbling in the hours immediately after the chemical leak, the governor's office did a good job with frequent updates on the status of the emergency, even though as <B>Donald Rumsfeld<P> says, there were a lot of known unknowns about the nature of the crisis.
On the negative:
* State regulatory officials obviously dropped the ball allowing a frankly sketchy company to store large quantities of hazardous material in 70-year-old tanks without frequent inspections and oversight.
One suspects that those in charge looked at Freedom Industries' Tier 2 form, and saw low NGPA numbers and a high LD50 for Crude MCHM, and concluded that, compared to some of the chemicals that have been unloosed in the valley over the years, the stuff wasn't super toxic or dangerous.
* Likewise, it is incomprehensible an Emergency Response Plan was not in place to address emergencies that could compromise the region's water supply, or that the state has no regulations in place to inspect chemical storage facilities.
* While Gov. <B>Earl Ray Tomblin's<P> handling of the water crisis was generally positive, many were put off by his continual defense of the coal industry, repeatedly insisting that "this was not a coal company incident. This was a chemical company incident."
It's hard to sell that differentiation, considering that the chemical is used to clean coal, and without the coal industry, there would be no Freedom Industries, and no Crude MCHM in the Kanawha Valley.
In a frankly hilarious Daily Show segment on the incident, <B>Jon Stewart<P> raised a succinct question, "Why would you build your toxic chemical storage tanks upstream, and your drinking water (plant) adjacent?"
Of course, when the water treatment plant was built in the early 1970s, the Kanawha River was severely polluted, and Charleston was downstream from numerous chemical and industrial plants, including the Dupont Belle Works, which back then was a much larger complex. Not to mention that the city sewer system at the time still had places where raw, untreated sewage was being dumped into the Kanawha.
Placing the treatment plant on the relatively pristine water of the Elk, with a Pennzoil diesel terminal located at what is now the Freedom Industries site, must have been an easy call for the urban planners and public health officials of the day.
Proof that state budget cuts have real implications: The West Virginia Poison Control Center, which fielded hundreds of calls after the chemical leak, and provided assistance in attempting to research the health implications of the MCHM-tainted water supply, is experiencing budget cuts that will hinder its ability to function adequately in the future.
State appropriations make up 56 percent of the center's operating budget, and Tomblin's budget bill calls for it to absorb a second 71/2 percent cut in as many years, going from $757,626 this year to $700,804 in the new budget.
Likewise, funding from West Virginia University Health Sciences and federal funding account for about 30 percent of the center's budget -- and those funding sources are also being cut this year.
Any number of heads of state agencies or offices will tell you they can only absorb so many budget cuts before the effectiveness of their agency is compromised.
While having longer lines at the DMV, or a longer wait for your income tax refund check to arrive may be annoying, getting a busy signal or hold music when trying to call the poison control center could be considerably more serious.
Finally, among the many contradictions of the past week, Attorney General <B>Patrick Morrisey<P> declared that his office will be working in collaboration with the U.S. Attorney's office, DEP, and the EPA to pursue legal action against Freedom Industries.
Meanwhile, in his budget presentation to Senate and House Finance committees, Morrisey states that his office continues to fight "regulatory overreach" by the EPA, including the EPA's retroactive veto of a Clean Water Act permit to Mingo-Logan Coal Co.'s Spruce mine.
"If EPA's actions are allowed to go unchecked, its newly expanded authority could create incessant uncertainty for future public works projects in West Virginia," Morrisey states.
Reach Phil Kabler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1220.