At hearing, stronger regulations called for
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians want answers about the Jan. 9 chemical spill, and they want action.
At a two-hour public hearing Monday night, speakers urged state lawmakers to monitor long-term health effects caused by the chemical leak that contaminated the water of more than 300,000 people in nine counties.
"We still don't know," said Maya Nye, who heads a citizen group called People Concerned About Chemical Safety. "We still don't have a lot of answers."
Speakers also called on legislators to strengthen a bill designed to regulate aboveground chemical storage tanks like the Freedom Industries tank that leaked the coal-cleaning chemical, crude MCHM, into the Elk River last month.
"Please, no loopholes, no exclusions," Eleanor Spohr, of Charleston, said.
Residents fumed that about half of the members of the House of Delegates didn't attend -- or left early -- Monday night's hearing in the House chamber. Speakers alleged that West Virginia politicians have fostered "a culture of non-inspections and non-enforcement" of environmental regulations.
"It is clear that the public has been failed on so many levels," said Laura Thaw, who lives in the Fort Hill community of Charleston. "The citizens of West Virginia deserve better than this. The time for change is today."
The legislation would require chemical storage tanks be registered and inspected annually. Under the bill, industry-hired engineers would inspect most tanks. Inspectors with the state Department of Environmental Protection would review storage tanks located fewer than 25 miles upstream from a water treatment facility.
The bill also would require public water treatment plants to have emergency plans for chemical spills.
More than 50 people spoke at Monday night's public hearing. Speakers included numerous environmental and community activists. Several mothers also spoke about the spill, saying they were worried about their children's health.
Many speakers said they didn't trust legislators to pass a strong bill that protects the state's clean-water supplies.
"You say this will never happen again," said Nancy Ward, a small business owner. "But unless you're willing to pass legislation that is effective and properly enforced, I guarantee it will happen again and again and again."
Destiny Gallagher, a 15-year-old student at Sherman High School in Boone County, said elementary school children who used water after the spill suffered from chemical burns and eye irritation. The children's parents called West Virginia American Water four times, but got no response, Gallagher said.
"My fear is the politicians are getting paid too much money by the corporations that are polluting our drinking water to save their bottom line," she said. "We deserve better than that. Water is necessity to our daily life, and we cannot allow it to be poisoned anymore."
Don Smith of Charleston told lawmakers he's been "spitting nails and fire" since the chemical spill made water unusable. Smith suggested that West Virginia American Water replace all its pipes, and that someone pay to replace all plumbing and appliances in the homes of water customers in nine counties.
"Let's...make it happen and start digging ditches," said Smith, whose comments drew loud applause.
Several speakers said people and small businesses are contemplating leaving West Virginia because of the chemical spill. They urged lawmakers to incorporate recommendations from a 2011 U.S. Chemical Safety Board report into the storage tank bill. The report recommended the state set up a program to prevent the release of hazardous chemicals.
"The most important thing now is to make things safe and increase our confidence, the confidence of the community and the workforce," said Amy Weintraub, a Charleston mother who attended Monday night's hearing with her 12-year-old daughter, Caroline.
The Senate swiftly passed the chemical storage tank bill last month. The House plans to have three committees review the bill.
Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, sharply criticized DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, who was quoted in news articles as saying "it just didn't click in anybody's mind" that the Freedom Industries tank farm on the Elk River posed a threat to the water supply of 300,000 West Virginians.
"This is a very rude awakening," Rosser said. "It's not just about one leaking tank. It's about redeeming our state from going down this path of degradation of our waterways."
Earlier Monday, Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief health officer of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, told members of the House health committee that he found out about the Jan. 9 chemical spill from a Charleston television reporter.
Gupta said local health departments must work hand-in-hand with the DEP and Department of Health and Human Resources. "We cannot afford anymore to work in silos," he said.
In response to the spill, Gupta recommended that the state establish a medical-monitoring program to evaluate the effects of the tainted water on local residents. Gupta also suggested the state set up a hazardous chemical release prevention program.
West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre also spoke at the House health committee meeting, saying the company plans to start replacing 16 carbon filters at its Charleston water treatment facility next month. McIntyre said the filters weren't contaminated, but would be replaced because of "public perception" that the filters might have been compromised during the chemical spill.
McIntyre also dismissed criticism that the water company should have shut off the treatment plant's intake system immediately after the spill. McIntyre said that action would have "de-pressurized" the entire water system and left the region without water to flush toilets and put out fires.
"If I was faced with the same circumstances, I would have made the same decision," McIntyre said.
The water company plans to start applying 1,000-gallon credits to customers' water bills later this week.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.