DEP officials, though, also have tried to downplay any connection between the storm-water permit and the leak. Huffman said, for example, that the permit alone doesn't give his agency authority to set specific standards for the integrity of above-ground storage tanks -- something that legislation moving through the Senate would do.
Environmental groups don't necessarily disagree that more specific standards for such tanks are needed. They just think that a much broader approach, including a rethinking of the state's common jobs-versus-the-environment rhetoric is what's needed.
The Rivers Coalition-Downstream Strategies report, for example, urges the Legislature to require the DEP to inspect all facilities across the state that have any kind of water-pollution permit -- something the public might be surprised to learn isn't already mandated. And, the report recommends that the DEP no longer be allowed to grant storm-water permits to industrial facilities near drinking-water intakes through the much-less rigorous "general" permitting program.
General permits "are intended to be reserved for categories of activities with minimal environmental impact and are used to make permitting more efficient," the Rivers Coalition-Downstream Strategies report said.
Under this program, the DEP issues what it calls a "general permit" that contains basic requirements for controlling storm-water pollution. Companies then register with the DEP under the program, promising on paper that they'll comply with its basic requirements. Frequently, there is little follow-up by the DEP.
"Our presence at this or any of these sites is reactive in nature," Huffman said in a Jan. 20 interview.
"This incident could have been prevented or minimized just with the regulations we have in place," Huffman said, "but it just didn't click in anybody's mind that this was a concern."
'This is a different kind of animal'
Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at the Vermont Law School, said that's part of the problem with the DEP allowing such a site to be covered by a general permit program.
"It's no surprise that there was weak follow-up and enforcement on a general permit," Parenteau said. "That program isn't really designed for facilities like this. This is a different kind of animal."
Parenteau said the Elk River leak also is symptomatic of what happens when agencies have media-specific inspection procedures, rather than combined efforts that include things like air and water together.
"You have this sort of tunnel-vision approach," Parenteau said. "Media-specific inspections often miss violations of other sorts of media. It doesn't surprise me that the air-quality guys would go out there and pay no attention to spill prevention of any kind. That really isn't their job."
Johnnie Banks, a supervising investigator with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, told lawmakers Friday that it's easy for companies and for regulators to, over time, ignore things like the odors residents complained were coming from Freedom Industries.
Often in industrial settings, Banks said, odors can become "normalized," so that workers don't really notice them. The same thing can happen with warning alarms about leaks. If little leaks set off alarms too often, workers can grow to ignore them as "nuisance alarms."
"If it becomes part of the lay of the land," Banks said in a later interview, "people get used to it."
In its report on the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, a team led by longtime mine-safety advocate Davitt McAteer made the same point.
"'Normalization of deviance' refers to a gradual process through which unacceptable practices or standards become acceptable," the McAteer team wrote. "As the deviant behavior is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm for the organization. Individuals who challenge the norm -- from within the organization or outside it -- are considered nuisances or even threats."
'High' susceptibility to contamination
The DEP isn't the only state agency whose inactions could have played a role in the Jan. 9 leak at Freedom Industries. In their report on the incident, the Rivers Coalition and Downstream Strategies discussed the Department of Health and Human Resources' role.
In April 2002, the DHHR's Bureau for Public Health assessed potential threats to the Elk River water supply that West Virginia American Water uses to provide drinking water to 300,000 people in nine counties.
Agency officials ranked the Elk's water as having a "high" susceptibility to potential contamination from a variety of industrial, commercial, municipal and agricultural sources. The report lists only two sources by name: The Allegheny Power Co. and Pennzoil Manufacturing, which previously operated the tank farm now owned by Freedom Industries.
The Rivers Coalition/Downstream Strategies report notes that the DHHR assessment is 12 years old "and out of date."
"Since 2002, the Pennzoil site has changed ownership . . . the types of materials stored at the site have changed as well," the report said. "Effective management of the risk of source water contamination required accurate, up-to-date information about potential hazards."
The DHHR assessment notes that the "next step" in protecting the Elk's drinking-water supply is to prepare a plan for doing so. However, the Rivers Coalition/Downstream Strategies report says, no such protection plan appears to have ever been written -- by the water company, by state officials or by local government planners.
Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman West Virginia American, said the water company has the 2002 assessment on file and, "I am not aware of any more-recent report."
Likewise, DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler said the 2002 assessment is "the most current information" her agency has.
Jennifer Sayre, Kanawha County manager, said her staff searched county computer files and could not locate a copy of the 2002 Elk River assessment, or any memos regarding it.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.