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Editorial: Half-way steps won't do for protecting water

Jan. 24, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

Following the chemical spill this month that left an estimated 300,000 West Virginians without water for a week or more, officials swung into action proposing various means aimed at preventing such a happening in the future.

Such a quick response is encouraging. But in their haste to plug glaring gaps in oversight of facilities where chemicals are stored, lawmakers at both the state and federal levels need to make sure their response is sufficient.

The chemical spill occurred at Freedom Industries in Charleston on Jan. 9, when 7,500 gallons of coal-cleaning chemicals stored in an above-ground tank seeped into the Elk River about 1.5 miles upstream from a water intake for a West Virginia American Water treatment plant serving all or part of nine counties.

In the days since, based on officials' statements and discussions already taking place in the capitols of Charleston and Washington, D.C., some basic issues have come to the fore:

It appears above-ground chemical storage facilities not involved in manufacturing chemicals aren't under any strict regulations requiring regular inspections or mitigation plans and procedures when spills occur.

The logical regulating agency, the state's Department of Environmental Protection, seemed confused in the days after the spill about whether it had inspected the Freedom Industries facility in recent years and what its obligations were.

Some experts appearing before West Virginia lawmakers said they believe the state has many of the tools in place to keep a closer watch on such storage facilities, but the "political will" is lacking for stronger enforcement.

Health and safety officials had little knowledge about the potential harms posed by the spilled chemical that was identified initially and a second one contained in the spill and acknowledged only this week.

In Charleston, multiple bills have been introduced, and already there's been considerable debate about whether they are comprehensive enough or go too far. In Washington, Sen. Joe Manchin has said he will introduce a bill designed to set a framework for stronger oversight. In both venues, legislation calls for better reporting by companies, more inspections, the creation of emergency plans and actions in case spills occur and greater transparency. Those all are important concepts, and should be part of any corrective action.

In Washington, there also has been talk of a proposed update to the Toxic Substances Control Act that would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct tests on designated "high-priority chemicals" so that there would be more information about their dangers. But some have already questioned whether the chemicals involved in West Virginia's spill would fall into that category.

What's evident from the consequences of the recent spill is that legislative fixes should be clear on these fronts:

Regular inspections of such facilities are not optional and they should be substantive enough to pinpoint any problems. Strict requirements should be written into laws, not left up to some agency to determine later and carry out using its own discretion.

A more comprehensive understanding of chemicals and their potential hazards should be gained, so that officials aren't left scrambling to determine the level of threat when spills do occur.

Federal and state governments will need to find the resources to implement tougher regulations. Putting new rules on the books without adequate enforcement capabilities won't do the job.

As this month's water crisis has underscored, safe water is essential. Actions that only go partway toward ensuring safe supplies are simply not good enough.

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