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Dave Callaghan: First, get control of the water

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Twenty three hundred years ago the Romans built a water system of aqueducts to bring water to the city of Rome. These structures, which covered hundreds of miles, are still today a symbol of their engineering skills, and their desperate need for clean water.

Closer to home, the City of New York has constructed a similar system to meet the water needs of about 8 million people. Instead of building above ground pipelines as the Romans did, New York City built hundreds of miles of below-ground tunnels. Both instances are examples of brilliant engineering for the necessity of clean water for a civil society. And New York has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect not only the tunnels, but also the lands where these waters originate, and enacted stringent regulations and land use measures.

Here in Charleston, we have been blessed by Mother Nature with an extraordinary gift. The Elk River (named for an animal which has been locally eradicated by civilization), has its beginning in the high and once pristine mountains of central West Virginia, whence it flows, almost unimpeded to our doorstep. No need to build tunnels or aqueducts to obtain clean water. All we have to do is take care of what has been delivered to us, free of charge, by Mother Nature or God, if you prefer. All we have to do to preserve this great renewable resource is to take care of it and supply some tender loving care.

But we have been invaded by forces who have no interest in preserving or protecting this resource. They have convinced us very effectively, and bribed us with the promise of jobs and prosperity, to assist them in destroying these God-given gifts, all to the benefit of their investors and stockholders. And we have bought into the deal.

The Wall Street-backed energy producers of single-minded purpose have taken over. About 10 years ago, West Virginia American Water Co., like the invaders from the energy sector, acquired the water works for the City of Charleston and the surrounding areas by European investors. Ownership has since been transferred to a new set of Wall Street investors. They, too, are responsible to and answer to their Wall Street owners and investors. They do not answer to the people of this state who depend on them for the necessity of life -- clean water. Their action (or lack thereof) in this crisis, can only be described as an example of 12-gauge, double-barreled stupidity compounded with a liberal dose of ignorance.

Did it ever even occur to them to look upstream to the source of this wonderful resource, to look for hazards? Are they ignorant of the fundamental concept of "redundancy" as a safety strategy as airlines do in designing aircraft with two engines and other systems so that recovery is possible after a failure?

The answer is no, because it is not in the interest of their owners to do so. Their interest was to get on line, back in production, and keep the sales elevated, regardless of whether the water was potable and free of odors. That's what the owners of West Virginia American Water Co. had as a priority -- not public safety and public health.

The dependability of Charleston's water system is abysmal. In my neighborhood, service interruptions occur on a routine basis, at least six per year. The result is a patch job and excavation of the street to repair a water main that is well past its life expectancy. Of what use is a fire hydrant when the water main has failed and is inert?

A suggestion for Mayor Jones

In watching television coverage of this event, it was obvious that no one experienced the pain like the mayor did -- having a city in a crisis that he was nearly helpless to deal with. Many of us, I'm sure, felt his pain. Mayor Jones has been for many years an effective public servant, as mayor, sheriff and legislator. The central question is how to be sure that an event like this does not happen again. The answer is difficult, but not impossible.

Mayor Jones, take control of this water system by negotiation or eminent domain or whatever means possible. It's the only way to put citizens' interest ahead of those on Wall Street.

The City of Lexington, Ky., attempted to take over their water supply from this same company. The effort lasted over four years and ended in 2006 when voters defeated a referendum. I believe that such a referendum would succeed in the Kanawha Valley. One thing is for sure, it wouldn't be difficult to form a large cheering section and support from the citizens here. A city-owned water company could then plan for the future with a program of capital improvements to meet the city's needs for the 21st century.

The water company says they have no plans to change or supplement the intake from its present location on the Elk River. An alternative intake located in the Kanawha River (above the mouth of the Elk) would not be an expensive addition to the system. The Kanawha River currently is not listed as meeting water quality standards for use as a source of drinking water. This designation was made decades ago when the river was severely polluted and degraded. Knowledgeable people now believe that water quality has improved sufficiently to allow the Kanawha's use as a drinking water source.

If West Virginia American Water had had an alternate (redundant) source to switch to, most of the pain of this spill event could have been easily and inexpensively avoided. So, Mr. Mayor, the city needs to acquire the company, start a program to improve the infrastructure (water mains) and build an alternative intake -- all of which will build a sense of confidence for the citizens of our city and beyond. I'm convinced that if this can be done, you are the one who can do it.

Some suggestions for state government

I have previously written about how those elected to our highest offices (governor and United States senators) can have a profound effect on the integrity and effectiveness of environmental management in West Virginia. I worked in cabinet level positions for three of those governors -- Hulett Smith, Jay Rockefeller, and Gaston Caperton. After they left office, their work and progressive accomplishments were promptly trashed and degraded by their successors, notably Arch Moore, Cecil Underwood and Joe Manchin. All of the successors appointed coal company lackeys and anti-regulatory operatives to the most key positions in government. Arch Moore, who went to prison for taking kickbacks from a coal operator, appointed as chief regulator a coal operator with no environmental regulatory experience or motivation. Cecil Underwood did the same. Joe Manchin followed in their footsteps and Earl Ray Tomblin continues. The results are becoming painfully apparent.

Don't get me wrong here. Coal and chemical jobs are an important part of our economy. But the companies must follow the law and be held accountable. The only rational counterpoint to investor greed and corner-cutting is honest and diligent state government enforcement of regulations already in place. Everyone is now talking about new legislation. There were plenty of laws in place to prevent the current debacle.

Gov. Tomblin is a lifelong politician with good intentions. To his credit, he has vast knowledge of government operations and is a good manager of public money. But, he also comes from an area of West Virginia that has shown little or no regard for environmental issues. He suffers from a disease that I call "Manchinitis." He is carrying on the Manchin "war on coal" tirade, which in reality is his war on West Virginia's long term environmental and public health.

I would like to think that the governor just does not know any better than to pursue his present course of action. I believe that, as a longtime legislator, his motives and aspirations have been unduly (almost exclusively) influenced and dictated by lobbyists representing special interest groups who have always been ubiquitous in the legislative halls. He needs to understand that he will not be remembered for conducting a war on the EPA, but for overseeing the systematic destruction of our precious renewable natural resources: air, water, forests, wildlife and scenic beauty.

It is truly troubling that he has taken the lobbyists' position on a litany of important issues such as meth lab eradication, mine safety, and the entire spectrum of environmental management. governor, my suggestion to you is to get some regulatory religion. Look at the big picture -- an industry which comprises 4 percent of the state's workforce should not be allowed to pursue their goals at the expense of the general population. Promptly implement the recommended action of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board with respect to hazardous release prevention. Ask your Secretary of Environmental Protection the following questions:

1. Who are the other distributors of MCHM and where are they located?

2. Find out which coal preparation plants have been receiving this material and which streams it is being discharged into.

3. Is it being treated before discharge into the waters of the state?

4. Is it covered in their NPDES permit?

A suggestion for the citizenry

A front-page article in The New York Times on Jan. 19  revealed that our U.S. senator (the one who works for the coal industry) has been paid by his coal brokerage firm, about $1.5 million each year for the years 2011 and 2012. Amounts for years prior to that time were hidden in a "blind trust." The senator stated recently that he was establishing a new "federal blind trust." Coal brokerage fees are generally paid by the coal producer. I wonder if the senator would care to reveal which coal operators made these payments and what service he, as a full-time public servant, provided in return for that compensation.

The citizenry could establish an "honest politician fund," using the proceeds of a "head tax" of say $20. With 1.8 million citizens, the fund would produce about $3.6 million annually to be used to fund honest politicians and pay them to be on our side. It might be the first time in West Virginia history that we could compete with the special interests. It might be the best expenditure of tax money we could make.

Callaghan was director of the state Division of Environmental Protection from 1991 to 1995 under Gov. Gaston Caperton and director of the Division of Natural Resources under Gov. Jay Rockefeller.  

 


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