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Toborowsky: Oversights are nothing new

By Linda Toborowsky

One night in 1994, I was in a major New Jersey gas explosion in which a 36-inch pipeline exploded under a parking lot adjacent to a 144-acre apartment complex where I was manager of its 1,000 units.

My family and I, along with my 80-year-old mother who was visiting from West Virginia, went running into the night under a pulsing 500-foot flame that roared like a thousand trains at eardrum-piercing decibels. We were among more than 2,000 people in Edison, N.J., shaken like puppets by the massive upheaval of gas, fire and earth, which ripped a 65-foot crater in the ground. The flame was seen in three states and it took four hours to halt the gas due to insufficient shutoff valves. It's a miracle that we lived, and this changed our lives forever.

That explosion and the water crisis in Charleston have a lot in common. Both were far-reaching and, in my opinion, both preventable. Neither event began on the actual dates, but long before.

The 4-methylcyclohexane methanol leak into Elk River affected more than 300,000 human beings, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, schools, jobs and businesses, with undeterminable effects on wildlife. The question is: Was there ongoing leakage before the breakthrough?

The gas pipeline in Edison had not been internally inspected since the 1960s. For about a year, tenants and I smelled gas and felt dizzy and sick from it. Each time I called city and state officials, or the pipeline's local office, they sent a representative who walked the area with me. Each time, the agent said it was OK. If anyone had followed up with a proper inspection, they would have found major corrosion and a quarter-inch nick where someone had nicked the pipe with a backhoe and never reported it. Both the nick and corrosion were causes for this avertable disaster.

As for the chemicals that leaked from a corroded West Virginia tank, if inspections and repairs had been completed, there probably would not be 300,000 people deprived of water, medical facilities, incomes, businesses, schools and much more. Moreover, if authorities at the water treatment plant had known about the chemical in the tanks, the response and treatment might have been different. The question remains about how long this leak was happening.

Federal laws were enacted following the New Jersey explosion, including a requirement that machine operators must call a toll-free number before digging more than 18 inches below the ground. Regulations were updated requiring internal and external inspection of pipelines on a regular basis. There are now requirements to install and regulate gas shutoff valves closer to one another.

What might change now in West Virginia? This water crisis should open the door for stronger supervision and controlled inspections. Moreover, anyone in charge of industries with hazardous, volatile material must be educated and held responsible. Whether these disasters result from negligence, inexperience, lack of communication, greed or being lackadaisical, they are still man-made. We don't need excuses. We need protection. The world needs responsible, honest, accountable people.

I wonder: If hazardous materials were stored in corroded structures, unchecked, unguarded, with lack of concern, in the backyards of people making these decisions, would there be more regulations, maintenance and repairs? You can bet there would be!

Toborowsky now lives in Charleston.


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