CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Conservatives usually oppose safety and health inspections on grounds that they hinder industry.
But now West Virginia is a sorry example of inadequate pollution policing. The whole world sees the Mountain State as a sad victim of a little-examined industry that spoiled the safe drinking water for 300,000 defenseless residents.
"Industry does it all the time and gets away with it," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., testified in a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday. "They will cut corners and they will get away with it. Regulation is soft in West Virginia. It's always been soft."
In a House hearing about the Elk River mess, pollution expert Jennifer Sass testified:
"It was surprising to many people -- and wholly unacceptable -- that thousands of gallons of a hazardous chemical could be stored and spill upstream of a drinking water intake -- and that there was essentially no useful information available to the public, drinking water system operators, state or federal public health officials or medical professionals and first responders, as to the safety or potential health and environmental effects of the substance."
She summed it up well: The dilapidated Freedom Industries tank farm -- with a convicted felon among its owners -- was allowed to contaminate a nine-county water system with a coal-washing chemical, and officialdom was completely ignorant about the chemical. Such slipshod public protection smacks of an impoverished Third World locale.
Sen. Rockefeller added that some West Virginians told him they may leave the state, because they fear for the health and safety of their children.
The Elk River spill cost West Virginia businesses and taxpayers $61 million, a study by Marshall University economists estimates. A tidal wave of lawsuits has erupted -- but the polluting company filed for bankruptcy to duck liability.
Also in Washington Tuesday, state Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman testified that his inspectors have identified 3,500 above-ground chemical storage tanks in West Virginia -- and about 1,000 of them possibly could pollute public water supplies.
Both state and federal legislators are drafting tougher inspection laws to try to prevent a replay of such water crises. The tougher the better, we say. But tough laws are ineffective if enforcement is "soft," as Rockefeller says. Significantly, most of that softness in West Virginia has occurred under conservative-minded Democratic governors.
As we've said before, fresh, safe, clean water is becoming a precious natural resource around the world. West Virginia is blessed with an abundant flow from the mighty Appalachians -- a flow that could become nationally valuable in future decades. But industrial ravages menace this treasure. Ever-stronger safeguards to protect it are crucial. Conservative objections to policing must be overcome.