CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Elk River chemical spill that left 300,000 West Virginians without safe water roused strong public demand for tougher policing of polluters. But some observers fear that Mountain State politicians will revert to their old habit of defending industries and attacking pollution controls.
A long Sunday New York Times analysis said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., continued "preaching a familiar gospel of an industry under siege by overzealous regulators," even after the chemical nightmare in his home state. Manchin sided with chemical and coal interests at a Washington industrial assembly six days after the Elk outrage.
The national newspaper noted that Manchin earns "nearly $1.5 million a year from his coal brokerage firm," and his first Senate speech "called for the repeal of a Clean Water Act regulation on mountaintop mining."
Manchin soon will play a key role in revising the federal Toxic Substances Control Act. The Times expressed apprehension that he will be swayed by "West Virginia's record of deferring to industry."
In the column below, national writer Eugene Robinson says of West Virginia leaders:
"The bipartisan consensus in the state seems to be: Move along folks, nothing to see here. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, told CNN that he is 'not going to cast guilt on anybody' and defended the coal industry. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, told the [Charleston] Gazette she still believes the Environmental Protection Agency is guilty of 'overreaching.'"
In Washington, Manchin is sponsoring what the Times called "modest legislation to regulate storage facilities like the Elk River tank farm that are close to waterways."
In Charleston, Gov. Tomblin likewise is asking the 2014 Legislature to pass a plan for limited policing of chemical tanks. As reporter Ken Ward Jr. pointed out Tuesday, Tomblin's bill wouldn't require state inspections of tank farms, but would let company-hired engineers declare that the tanks are safe.
In contrast, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board repeatedly urged West Virginia to adopt an "audit" system in which outside health and safety experts visit each facility yearly to pinpoint any potential dangers.
The nine-county water contamination -- caused by a dilapidated tank farm with a convicted felon among listed owners -- was a bitter jolt to West Virginia. Families and businesses suffered. School students lost more than a week of learning. About 400 residents went to hospitals. A flood of lawsuits began. The offending firm filed bankruptcy to avoid responsibility.
Current public anger demands that elected officials make a genuine crackdown on such industrial affronts. There should be no retreat.