W.Va. H2O: EVERY DROP COUNTS
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.