One of the first ideas that occurred to West Virginians across nine counties, even while they were still unable to use their tap water, was that it might not be such a great idea to locate a water intake just downstream from an aging chemical tank farm. That helpful suggestion has been brought to West Virginia American Water Company President Jeff McIntyre, who brushes it off.
People who pay their water bills every month might have expected McIntyre to think of the idea himself. Indeed, until Jan. 9, area residents vaguely but generally believed that they paid professionals -- both at the water company and in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration -- to keep their water safe and flowing. That trust was misplaced.
The Gazette's Rachel Molenda reported that McIntyre believes his company tried to find out what was stored just upstream from his regional intake, but got no response. He must not have tried very hard. The state's Homeland Security office knew what Freedom Industries was storing there because it had a chemical inventory report on it.
Who else should have been on top of this threat to the people's water? West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources writes "Source Water Assessment" reports for that very purpose. And DHHR's most recent assessment for the Elk River dates all the way back to 2002, more than a decade ago, reports the Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. That report refers to the former Pennzoil facility, but doesn't even mention Freedom Industries. Nor does it list chemicals stored there in large amounts by Freedom. Nor did DHHR follow up with any kind of action or plan to protect the water.
Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau of Public Health, has made glib and insulting comments when people have genuine concerns about the safety of their water, but has not outlined how she will correct this failure.
McIntyre's crew had time this week to go to the Legislature to lobby against a compensation fund for victims, but acts as if discussion of moving the regional intake is premature.
People have learned they cannot rely on the judgment of paid professionals -- either at the water company or the statehouse -- to keep the water safe. They are now trying to do it by insisting in clear terms that the water company president, the governor and everyone who works for them do the jobs they were hired or elected to do.
Since the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered demolition of the Freedom tank farm, the 80-year-old chemical site may no longer imperil the water system's Elk River intake (unless the decrepit tanks polluted the valley floor with toxins that will leach into groundwater for years). However, West Virginians expect their leaders, both at the water utility and the governor's office, to thoroughly evaluate threats to all water intakes across the state, and move accordingly. Everyone is waiting.