Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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January 19, 2014

Questions about chem leak abound

— — Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink. That was the situation recently in nine West Virginia counties after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston forced West Virginia American Water to advise its customers in the capital city and other areas not to use the water. The ordeal lasted almost a week and there are still concerns whether the “all clear” really means the water is safe.

When the water intake plant was built along the Elk River in the late ’60s or early ’70s, it was done so because the Elk was a relatively pristine river. It was unlike the Kanawha which was and still is lined with industries from where the Gauley and New Rivers meet in Gauley Bridge, through chemical valley in Belle, Charleston, Institute, Nitro all the way to where it dumps into the mighty Ohio at Point Pleasant.

There are questions that have to be asked and answered.

Why was a chemical storage facility allowed to be constructed on the river bank a mile or so above the water system intake? If the facility now used by Freedom Industries was there first, why was the water plant built at its current location? If the water plant were there first, who in the name of Sam Hill — and I’m not talking about the girls’ soccer coach at PikeView High School — in their right mind allowed a storage farm to be built on the banks of the river just upstream? Why are there not regulations in place to monitor any storage facility that sits along a river that provides 15 percent of West Virginia’s citizens their water? It does not matter that the substance stored in the tanks was not deemed “hazardous,” it was a contaminant and no one seemed to know the effect it would have on humans if consumed or absorbed into the skin.

I had many friends and some relatives who were affected by the nearly week-long ordeal. One acquaintance who lives in Charleston reported on social media that after showering he developed a rash. Others have posted pictures of rash-like conditions on their bodies.

Somebody and everybody dropped the ball — the EPA, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, West Virginia American Water and Freedom Industries. Each of those entities is to blame for the situation.

The EPA which goes as far as regulating rain water run-off ... well, I need not say any more. The agency looks at parking lots as sources of pollutants entering storm sewers. Should they not look at chemical tanks near water plant intakes?

The DEP said it was not regulated because it was not a “hazardous” material. Well la-de-da. It’s not hazardous, but no one including the Centers for Disease Control knows what the chemical can or will do to humans. Should that not raise a few eyebrows?

Furthermore, does the DEP not have oversight over water treatment plants and if they see a potential for disaster, should they not avert that potential?

I guess huge tanks on the bank of the Elk River are guaranteed not to rust, leak, overflow or stand the risk of being compromised in any fashion.

West Virginia American Water, the present water company, who probably inherited the facility from its previous owner after construction of both were completed, needed to call attention to DEP and/or EPA officials that a mile upstream from the intake, rested a bunch of storage tanks. Are you checking them to make sure it does not contaminate the water supply?

Freedom Industries, it has been reported, did not report the spillage until officials came on site last week. Oh where is thy social and possibly legal responsibility?

No one knows what the effects of the spill and the exposure to contaminated water will have on those who are served by the system. There can be speculation but any definite answers I am sure are way in the future.

In the meantime, measures need to be taken to insure that such an incident does not happen again. There needs to be inspection and oversight of all chemical storage facilities on a recurring basis. Tanks corrode, leak and may be punctured, spilling their contents into the environment. That can be prevented.

Legislation needs to be enacted calling for such inspections and it should not be based on whether or not the stored contents are “toxic” or “hazardous.” If it is a health concern, it should be closely guarded.

It is my hope that this situation can soon be rectified and that the public can again have confidence in their water source, because as of now there is not much belief in the safety of the liquid coming out of the taps for 300,000 people in the state of West Virginia.

Bob Redd is a sports writer and editorial page columnist for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at bredd@bdtonline.com.

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