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Water: What now?

It's been more than a week, and still my mind ricochets from outrage to gratitude to gape-mouthed stupefaction and back to outrage.

Outrage, obviously that Freedom Industries, wearing its laissez-faire attitude on its sleeve, letterhead and leaky tank, interferes with the freedom of everyone else -- the freedom to go about one's business, make a living, attend school, meet first-quarter goals, drink the water, stuff like that.

Gratitude for living among people who mostly share, who use good sense and caution during an emergency, who carry on, mostly patiently, and who do their best to follow directions for the good of everyone. And for all the blessings I've been counting this week.

As for stupefaction, where to begin? Not the lack of a plan for how to handle thousands of gallons of a coal-washing chemical spilling into the water supply. Not the lack of a complete chemical inventory and safety precaution routine, despite repeated suggestions and requests for such a thing. Nah. Earnest warnings from knowledgeable people during non-emergencies are routinely ignored.

What leaves me speechless is the full-out thickness of people who should know better after the danger is perceived. For example, why wait three days after telling people to resume using their water to warn off pregnant women?

Or how about the dullard who thought it would be a good idea to refill bulk water distribution tanks from the restored but still smelly water supply? When do we start doing things in the right order?

Which brings me back to outrage. Or just rage.

That's when I saw state Sen. John Unger, D-Jefferson, working an interesting combination of pastoral care and legislation. This is not hopeless, he says.

"It's not!" he insisted to me this week. "We're blessed!"

Unger has introduced SB 373 to require inspection and monitoring of above-ground chemical storage tanks similar to what is already required for tanks below ground. The idea is to prevent what happened on the Elk River from happening anywhere else.

But that is just a partial solution.

Several years ago, Unger sponsored the state's Water Resources Protection and Management Act. That act has three parts -- to claim the state's water, to inventory it, and to develop a plan to manage and protect it. The state is now in the process of carrying out the third part.

His committee is scheduling hearings to learn about preventing future contamination.

And the issue of protecting the state's drinking water has gained a lot of support. Not just among the 300,000 people who are still sniffing their tap water either, he said.

In his own district, on the other side of the continental divide, residents have been calling their local health officials to ask about water safety. Everyone's confidence is low, no matter where they live.

"Because they know if it can happen here, it can happen there," he said.

This is an opportunity.

"It depends on what we do from now on," Unger said.Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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