Around the world, supplies of safe, clean, fresh water are becoming a crucial natural resource. In some places, water shortages trigger regional and international disputes. West Virginia, however, is blessed with an abundant flow from the stately Appalachians. Some authorities predict that this flow will become ever more valuable as booming U.S. population overtaxes water supplies elsewhere.
But the ugly chemical leak into Elk River, which threw 300,000 residents into a crisis, shows how easy it is for West Virginia's precious commodity to be tainted.
Writing in The New Yorker, Jedediah Purdy said the Elk has been a preferred source because too many other Mountain State streams were contaminated from mining.
Why was a rickety chemical tank farm, with a convicted felon among owners, allowed to foul the state's largest public water supply? Why didn't state and federal inspectors detect the threat in advance and prevent it?
The Legislature is debating two reform crackdowns -- a moderate plan backed by Gov. Tomblin and a tougher one drafted by Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley. But pollution expert Evan Hansen of Downstream Strategies says the state Department of Environmental Protection previously had plenty of authority to act, and didn't.
Hansen testified before legislators that the DEP could inspect the tank farm under a stormwater permit it had issued -- and the state Bureau for Public Health had warned that the tank farm was a potential menace.
"So long as our state leaders make it clear that they're not interested in strict enforcement, the DEP is not going to strictly enforce the permits," he said.
If this is accurate -- that state watchdogs had authority, but were dissuaded from policing -- then lax enforcement may continue after tougher new laws are imposed.
West Virginia University environmental law professor Patrick McGinley added:
"The events of the last few weeks have severely damaged West Virginians' confidence in leadership provided by the Legislature, governor and DEP."
Owners of the decrepit tank farm had given political cash to Gov. Tomblin, former Gov. Joe Manchin and Rep. Shelley Capito, R-W.Va. An aide said Capito will get rid of her $500 gift by donating it to the United Way. Apparently she realizes that the money was tainted like the water supply.
Response to the water crisis is a prime topic facing the 2014 Legislature. We hope the toughest protections are passed -- and they are written so they cannot be ignored like past safeguards.