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Crisis: Chemical spill

South-central West Virginia is suffering misery from a chemical spill into the region's chief water source. The vital supply of safe drinking water has been declared untouchable.

Schools, restaurants and bars are closed. Some businesses are impaired. Emergency water supplies are being rushed to the Kanawha Valley area. Hospitals, nursing homes and hotels are in a predicament. The House of Delegates canceled its Friday session. Loudspeaker trucks and automated phone calls warn residents not to drink, bathe, cook or otherwise come into contact with public water.

Both the governor and the president declared a disaster.

In the past, peasants were called "the great unwashed." Now that term applies to hundreds of thousands of West Virginians who can't bathe, shave or brush their teeth, unless they use bottled water. A Huntington hotel is offering free showers to all who drive there.

The culprit in this calamity is Freedom Industries, which operates the Etowah River Terminal beside Elk River, with tanks that can store 4 million gallons. Freedom-Etowah ships specialty chemicals by barge for coal mining and other industries.

Initial reports said a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol gushed from a tank and overflowed containment dikes, pouring into Elk River -- just upstream from the intake where West Virginia American Water draws 30 million gallons per day to be purified at a large Charleston preparation plant.

The pollutant entered public water pipelines serving more than eight counties, with some pipes extending 60 miles. Nobody knows how long it will take to flush the system and restore safety. The chemical is somewhat unknown, and its health effects are uncertain.

Freedom-Etowah reportedly failed to notify Kanawha County emergency authorities when the spill occurred. Instead, it was discovered by county and state agents who answered complaints about a bad odor.

This mess shows the importance of government safety and health inspections to try to prevent industrial tragedies and problems. Maybe inspectors could have detected valves or pipes at risk of rupture.Political conservatives traditionally oppose industrial inspections, on grounds that they interfere with private business. But the current mid-West Virginia crisis makes it clear that private business fumbles quickly can become everyone's business.


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