Has Sen. Joe Manchin found religion on the issue of protecting water quality?
Since the chemical spill that contaminated the water for 300,000 people, Manchin has appeared in Congressional hearings and co-sponsored legislation to require regular state inspections of above-ground chemical storage.
"I am asking all West Virginians to join me in a new and solemn pledge: I will do everything in my power as a member of the U.S. Senate, and most importantly as a proud West Virginian, to make sure that the water in West Virginia becomes the cleanest and safest in America," Manchin said in a commentary last week.
Grateful as West Virginians must be for this solemn pledge, it is a pity that Sen. Manchin could not have had the epiphany when he was governor, when he actually ruled multiple departments already charged with protecting the public's health and safety.
Instead, as governor, Manchin oversaw the kind of lackadaisical environmental law enforcement that begets situations like this one. Thousands of gallons of a coal-cleaning chemical leaked out of an aging storage tank on the Elk River. Freedom Industries didn't bother to let anyone know until neighbors literally smelled trouble.
Instead, as governor, Manchin actually sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency because the EPA intended to enforce -- get this -- the Clean Water Act. Few mountaintop removal permit requests were expected to survive that kind of scrutiny.
Manchin's actions at that time were good at whipping up fears and votes of people genuinely anxious for their jobs and future. That is not the same thing as serving the public interest -- such as protecting clean water, necessary for both life and livelihood.
Even in the days immediately after the spill Manchin tried to distance the disaster from any connection to the coal industry and to explain it away as something that happens to West Virginians who "do the heavy lifting."
Senator and former governor Jay Rockefeller says pollution enforcement always has been "soft" in West Virginia. Last week, an emergency petition to the state Supreme Court accused state health and safety agencies of doing nothing to protect West Virginians from the Elk River spill, even though the risk had been known in advance.
Now that so many of his constituents have been harmed or inconvenienced and the world is watching, Manchin is backing some decent ideas -- more frequent inspections of chemical storage facilities near drinking water sources, minimum federal standards for chemical storage, emergency response plans, financial responsibility requirements, mandatory notification of what is being stored and testing of commercial chemicals.
West Virginia should indeed emerge from this crisis with the safest, most reputable water supply in the country.But that will take enforcement, respect for science and diligence, long after the hearings are adjourned and the TV cameras are turned off.