CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the aspects that has struck me from the first days of the water crisis has been the incredibly incompetent "risk communication" offered by almost every official involved.
From the disastrous initial press conference by Freedom Industries' Gary Southern the day after the spill was reported, to the recent press conference by the governor, where he first refused to do in-home testing, then reversed course just hours later, the handling of this crisis violates every major tenet of professional risk communication.
The feds have been no better. It reminds me of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Many of us remember how President Bush looked down on that devastated city as he flew back to Washington after his Texas ranch vacation. When he finally actually came to the Gulf Coast, he told the FEMA Director Michael Brown, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." One week later, Brown was fired, and the Bush Administration never recovered from their mishandling of the crisis.
Will the Elk River spill become the Obama administration's 'Katrina'?
Most people no longer trust our water, our political leaders, or our regulatory agencies. When people outside the state hear about a water crisis, they think it is all of West Virginia's water, not just one river. Tourists stop coming, businesses stay away, jobs are lost, because of the perception of bad water and worse regulatory enforcement.
Why has the risk communication and overall handling of this crisis been so bad? Many people at the Feb. 3 legislative hearing blamed Big Business's domination of our government for spawning a culture of lax enforcement. That was further reinforced by the revelations this week that Gov. Tomblin invited Big Business "stakeholders," but no environmental advocates, to help draft his legislative response to the crisis.
So how do we re-build trust in the water?
It is absolutely essential that we use this crisis to establish West Virginia's reputation as the premier source of clean water, as the epitome of how to protect all water everywhere. In the words of one commenter, getting back to "normal" is not good enough.