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Editorial: Safety reforms

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Across West Virginia, hundreds of communities draw their drinking water from creeks and rivers.  Theoretically, all those towns and cities are vulnerable to toxic spills like the one that disrupted life for 300,000 people in Kanawha and seven other south-central counties.

Legislators -- who were temporarily knocked out of session by the water crisis -- are exploring possible law changes to provide better safety.  Bravo. Action is needed.

For example, chemical manufacturing plants are required to make immediate public warnings after a leak -- but it's unclear whether the law applies to storage tank farms and shipping docks like the Elk Valley facility that caused the current headache.

"Warehousing may need to be included in the definition of those that early report," Senate President Jeff Kessler said -- adding that this urgency is especially high when the storage facility is upstream from a water system intake.

Good idea. Amend the law. However, the culprit firm already was required to report leaks. As reporter Ken Ward Jr. outlined, the state Department of Environmental Protection had given Freedom Industries a storm water permit requiring public notification of chemical spillage.

If the tank farm had disclosed the leak quickly, West Virginia American Water might have closed its Elk River intake to prevent the noxious chemical from entering its 60-mile network of pipelines to homes, schools and businesses -- and the weeklong crisis would have been averted.

All reports say Freedom Industries violated its warning requirement. After nearby residents called authorities about foul odors, state inspectors Mike Kolb and Dan Bauerle went to the scene. They told Ward that Dennis Farrell identified himself as president of Freedom Industries and said "there weren't any problems" at the tank farm.

But inspectors found an "artesian well" of chemicals spouting from beside a leaky tank, and a four-foot-wide stream of the pollutant vanishing into a hole in a faulty containment wall.

Why was this decrepit facility -- founded by a bankrupt Charleston businessman with a felony record -- allowed to disrupt the lives of 300,000 West Virginians?

Incidentally, Ward revealed that state inspectors hadn't examined the tank farm for nearly a quarter-century.

Meanwhile, another reform also is needed. As Kanawha Valley safety advocate Maya Nye wrote in Tuesday's Gazette, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has recommended repeatedly that the Charleston region create a Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program.

Under an HCRPP, an outside committee of health and safety experts makes a yearly "audit" of each facility to detect dangers. Pioneered in California, this safeguard has lowered the number of tragedies and problems.

Despite repeated recommendations, state officials haven't adopted this protection for West Virginia.

We hope the 2014 water crisis spurs legislators and other leaders to impose strong safeguards to protect the public.


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