Now that West Virginia's water crisis is fading, a major question looms: Will the Legislature and other parts of state officialdom take serious steps to protect West Virginians from such miseries in the future? Or will lobbyists from polluting industries thwart reform attempts?
National voices predict the latter:
In The New Yorker, Mountain State native Jedediah Purdy wrote that safety reform requests usually "go nowhere in a state government that habitually defers to both coal and chemical companies."
Purdy said the coal-washing chemical involved in the Elk River spill, MCHM, is mostly unknown, but one study implies that "the fatal dose for a large adult [is] a little more than two ounces." He said MCHM enters West Virginia streams "at a thousand points" from impoundment ponds and other washing sites near creeks.
Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote Thursday:
"Last week's massive spill of the toxic chemical MCHM into West Virginia's Elk River illustrates another benefit to the business class [resulting from] high unemployment, economic insecurity and a safety net shot through with holes. Not only are employees eager to accept whatever job they can get; they are also unwilling to demand healthy and safe environments."
The New York Times quoted Kanawha Valley industrial safety advocate Maya Nye: "We are so desperate for jobs in West Virginia, we don't want to do anything that pushes industry out."
We don't think honest, responsible industry would be pushed out by safety and health inspections. Plants should welcome scrutiny. Complying with safety rules shows good corporate citizenship -- and might shield some firms from ruinous lawsuits, such as the blitz now attacking Freedom Industries, perpetrator of the Elk crisis.
It's dismaying that the dilapidated Elk Valley tank farm -- partly founded by a bankrupt businessman with a felony record -- was allowed to operate for decades without official notice.
Now it's up to the Legislature to decide whether anything will be done. As the 60-day session unfolds, watch closely to see what results emerge.