State political leaders, when pressed about environmental issues, talk about their desire to find "a balance" between clean water and jobs.
"As the Mountain State seeks new energy opportunities, such as the abundance of natural gas reserves of the Marcellus Shale, we cannot underestimate the importance of being good stewards of the environment," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a DEP "State of the Environment" report published in 2011. "As a state with a robust energy sector tied to our natural resources, we must find balance between industry and the environment. West Virginia continues to set a course where our natural resources provide our people jobs and our nation energy in an environmentally friendly manner."
Citizen groups, though, say talk of this "balance" often masks a political agenda that makes it tough for the DEP's most dedicated inspectors to help citizens understand and deal with environmental threats in their communities.
David McMahon, a longtime advocate for citizen rights in dealing with oil and gas companies, said the state often leans too far toward helping drilling operators, rather than more firmly enforcing state rules.
"I would say that this particular incident should educate people who usually are not affected by DEP actions and nonactions on my view of the biggest problem with [the] DEP," McMahon said. "If [the] DEP had an enforcement policy of deterrence, Freedom might have maintained their secondary containment out of fear of getting caught having a faulty secondary spill-containment system, instead of knowing that if they were caught the inspector would merely have assisted them in future compliance."
Over the years, there also have been plenty of instances where citizens were left with little recourse but to sue to implement major water-pollution protections.
The DEP, for example, never started writing pollution-reduction plans for impaired waterways until a federal court lawsuit forced the agency's hand. In Wood County, residents used litigation to uncover details of DuPont Co.'s toxic C8 pollution. In the coalfields, residents repeatedly have sued over contamination of their water -- or loss of well water altogether.
"Although much criticized by politicians and polluting companies, citizens have frequently been forced to go to court to enforce environmental laws," said Pat McGinley, an environmental law professor at West Virginia University who frequently represents citizen groups. "It's time to stop the criticism of environmental regulation and pressure [the] DEP and politicians to enforce the law."
But the whole issue of protecting our water can often be far more complex than the standard news media narratives describe, according to James Salzman, a Duke University professor of law and environmental policy and author of a book called, "Drinking Water: A History."
In an interview last week, Salzman noted that it wasn't so long ago that some of the most common causes of death in America were related to poor drinking water. Across the world, he said, many people envy the easy access to quality water U.S. residents enjoy.
"The water situation we have today is nothing short of a miracle," Salzman said. "I can go almost anywhere in the country and take a drink of water and not worry about whether it's safe."
That doesn't mean clean drinking water should be taken for granted, he said. To the contrary, residents should remember that good water is always going to be on the defensive, with threats -- both known and unknown -- lurking everywhere.
Looking at the West Virginia chemical leak, Salzman commented that it might have been nice if West Virginia American Water had better monitoring, capable of picking up the MCHM leak sooner. But better monitoring costs money, Salzman said, and increasing water rates is never popular with citizens or utility commissions.
"There are some things that water providers should do for the public good, but they are going to cost money," he said. "Folks can't have it both ways."
In West Virginia, even when public officials set out to really protect our water, it doesn't always seem to work out that way.
A decade ago this month, in January 2004, then-Gov. Bob Wise highlighted water issues in his State of the State address.
"In the past, we have recognized coal, gas and timber as valuable natural resources," Wise said. "Now, we also must count West Virginia's clear, pure water as equally precious. Currently, West Virginia does not have the tools or information to properly manage its water resources."
Wise promoted legislation to establish a state water-usage program, to give officials the information they needed to understand the Mountain State's supply of water and the industries that use it.
"We also must continue to protect the quality of water in our streams and rivers, to preserve them for future generations," Wise said. "We must reject any attempt to weaken our water-quality rules."
During that legislative session, though, lawmakers would give Wise authority only to gather information on water use. They wouldn't also mandate that the DEP establish a new statewide water-management plan. That law didn't get approved until four years later, in 2008, and regulators are still working to implement it.
Last month, DEP officials told lawmakers they needed some additional authority to really do the job. Brian Carr, program manager for water use in the DEP's Division of Water and Waste Management, said his staff needs authority to gather water data from smaller users, to require more frequent use reports and to fund the statewide stream gauge program.
Such issues didn't make Tomblin's State of the State address two weeks ago. The governor did praise the state's investments in "water and sewer infrastructure." And, he promised to "never back down from the EPA because of its misguided policies on coal."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.