CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state and federal agencies that have been responding to the Elk River chemical leak all have one thing in common: They have had their budgets cut in the last few years.
And people connected with those agencies say, perhaps not surprisingly, that the cuts have hurt their ability to prevent and respond to situations like the water crisis in West Virginia.
The federal Chemical Safety Board is conducting a long-term investigation into what went wrong at Freedom Industries' site on the Elk, and what can be done to prevent future incidents.
The CSB has 41 employees, about half of whom are investigators. Its investigation in Charleston is expected to take about a year. The agency's budget -- about $10.5 million -- has been essentially flat for the last five years, although after the leak its 2014 funding was increased by $500,000, following a request by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives previously passed a broad spending bill that would have cut the CSB's funding by 25 percent, to about $8 million per year.
Rafael Moure-Eraso, the CSB's chairman, said that his agency had also lost $450,000 in 2013 due to the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration. He said that funding issues have slowed down and hampered his agency's investigations.
"Oh very much so. We have three active investigative teams, so in order for Mr. Banks to be here with his team, he has to stop the work on the particular investigation he was running," Moure-Eraso said.
Lead investigator Johnnie Banks had to leave his investigation of an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, to come to the Kanawha Valley.
"We have to go back to West, and come back to this, and share time like that," Moure-Eraso said. "We just have to come and start an investigation and do the best we can with the resources we have. And we would like to be more efficient in what we produce, but it's a problem."
Banks said Friday the agency is as busy as it has ever been in his 11 years there.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is facilitating the cleanup process at Freedom Industries. The DEP is also the agency that approved Freedom's water pollution permit and visited the site several times over the past two decades to investigate odor complaints.
Like many state agencies, the DEP would have its state funding cut by 7.5 percent for the second consecutive year under the budget Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposed Jan. 8, the day before the leak was detected.
In the 2014-15 fiscal year, which begins in July, the DEP will get less state money than it has in any year going back to 2008, according to projections from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
But that only tells a fraction of the story. The DEP generally gets between $7 million and $8 million per year from the state's general revenue fund, so the 7.5 percent cuts amount to about $500,000. The vast majority of the agency's $200 million to $300 million annual budget comes from the federal government and special revenue, mostly in the form of fees for permits and licenses.
But those sources of funding are in decline as well. The DEP's budget for fiscal year 2014, which ends June 30, is smaller than every year since 2010, according to budget records. Adjusted for inflation, the DEP's 2014 budget is about $43 million less than it was in 2010.
A Tomblin spokeswoman indicated that the governor had no plans to reconsider the 7.5 percent cut for fiscal 2015 and said the agency could make up the cuts using special revenue money.
"DEP is funded almost entirely through special revenue and special revenue agencies did not receive a 7.5 percent cut," Amy Shuler Goodwin, Tomblin's communication director, wrote in an email. "Any reductions in the governor's recommended budget will have no impact on the agency's ability to carry out its mission."
The West Virginia Senate is considering a bill that would require the DEP to annually inspect all above-ground storage tanks in the state.
The bill includes ways to fund those inspections, such as fees on tank owners, but Senate President Jeff Kessler said Friday that legislators should look at the cuts to the DEP.