CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians love their water.
Kids play in their favorite swimming holes. Anglers search for trout in cool mountain streams. State tourism promoters tout rugged whitewater rafting trips. Everybody gets their picture taken in front of Blackwater Falls.
When it comes to protecting our water, though, sometimes it seems like West Virginians mostly talk a good game.
Over the past 10 days, nearly 300,000 people across nine counties lived through the worries and fears of an unprecedented "do-not-use" order from West Virginia American Water.
Even as residents have been declared in the clear by the water company and state officials, concerns linger.
Pregnant women have been warned to drink only bottled water, at least for now. Houses smell strongly of black licorice, following the plumbing system flushing recommended by the water company.
Many residents still aren't drinking the water. Diners are asking local restaurants if they're cooking and cleaning with bottled water. And while public health officials have tried to assure residents, no one can say for sure what the long-term health effects will be, or how long a comprehensive cleanup from the spill might take.
Looking back, though, should we really be surprised?
"This incident highlights just how foolish we as a state are every time we lessen state water-quality standards or only loosely enforce the laws we have," said Cindy Rank, a longtime leader of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "In doing so, we not only threaten the health and well-being of everyone in West Virginia today, but also destroy the foundation for the future success of the state."
Threats to West Virginia's rivers, streams and lakes aren't hard to find.
Mountaintop-removal coal mining has buried hundreds of miles of streams. Waste from coal mining -- like the coal-cleaning chemical "Crude MCHM" that leaked into the Elk River -- are pumped into huge slurry impoundments.
The boom in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale presents a host of new water-quality problems. And that's including many problems that state-sponsored studies have shown won't be solved by a December 2011 law the industry helped write.
In parts of West Virginia, raw sewage is still piped directly into streams.
Across the state, more than 12,600 miles of streams -- more than 40 percent of the total -- are listed as impaired, according to the most recent West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection report, published in 2012. For another 11,000 miles, or more than a third of the state's total, DEP officials don't have enough data to characterize the water quality.
Regulators and industry officials are fond of saying things have gotten better. Rivers and streams are cleaner. Coal mines and factories are governed by state and federal discharge permits. Elaborate treatment plants are required to reduce pollution.
Last month, Alpha Natural Resources Vice President Gene Kitts spoke at a state energy summit about growing up in Mingo County, where kids played around piles of coal waste and streams often flowed black.
"We've made tremendous progress," Kitts said.
There's plenty of truth to such statements. In the past decade alone, discharges to West Virginia's surface waters were cut in half, from 4.4 million pounds to 2.2 million pounds, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory program.
"West Virginia has many miles of high-quality streams that support healthy communities of aquatic organisms," the state DEP said in one recent report. "Many of these streams are the raw water sources for many of the state's drinking water supplies, as well as for the construction, manufacturing, chemical, power generation, mineral extraction, and agricultural industries. Recreation in and around West Virginia's waters contributes significantly to the state's economy."
Still, those bad old days before the 1970s environmental revolution have left the state a bitter legacy. Regulators face cleanups and huge financial liabilities at abandoned coal mines, and also must deal with leftover toxic-waste dumps, steel mills and glass factories.
In the wake of the Freedom Industries leak, many residents are asking questions and pointing fingers. Why didn't the DEP do something before this happened? Where were state Bureau for Public Health officials, who are charged with protecting drinking-water supplies?
Such allegations also are nothing new.
For example, when Massey Energy Co. had spill after spill of toxic blackwater into coalfield streams, it took the EPA to come in and secure a record fine and cleanup.