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Diane Mufson: Storm water problems need action now

Jan. 29, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

The number one topic of discussion in our state this month is water. Thanks to Freedom Industries' (Don't you just love that name?) toxic chemical pollution of the water flowing to 300,000 West Virginians, no one in our state has any doubt that good clean water is absolutely essential.

Without this, our homes, businesses, education and recreation come to a standstill. There are still many people impacted by the contaminated water who question the safety of their current water source.

The City of Huntington dodged a bullet during this recent water catastrophe. Yet, we have our own water crisis waiting on the shore. Our city's sewer system, which carries both storm and sewer water is archaic. Everyone over the age of 5 knows the mess, frustration and devastation that occur in parts of Huntington following a heavy downpour. This has to change. The problems with our storm water system need to be alleviated now.

The issue is not just the water damage and inconveniences that accompany heavy rains. It is also the economic impact that affects our community. Businesses do not choose to relocate in flood-prone areas. Why would anyone want to move to or live in an area where homes and businesses could suffer significant damage from anything more than a light rain shower?

Our storm water problems will not improve simply by casting blame on others, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an agency our state loves to hate. The New York Times reported that, "The current (W.Va.) governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, promised the day before the Freedom Industries spill in his State of the State address to 'never back down from the EPA.'"

A few years ago the EPA fined Huntington over $150,000 because we were out of compliance with storm water permitting. The fine was reduced significantly with the promise that the city would actively remedy the problem. Yet, Huntington seems to be drowning in procrastination and could face future fines.

Mayor Steve Williams is a realist. He recognizes that we cannot kick the water can down the road indefinitely. He has been working on a multi-year plan to change that. Potential fees attached to an earlier plan weren't well received. The mayor has now convened a work group comprised of people representing various areas, occupations, interests and organizations to develop an improved framework.

Huntington's storm water plans must progress beyond our familiar modes of "we'll take care of it someday," or expecting police or fire department rescues of floating vehicles and their drivers and basements filled with filthy water.

Mayor Williams noted that studies on our storm water problems were done in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1990s and even in the 2000s. Yet, no significant action has been taken. Much of our sewer system was built about the 1930s with help from the federal government, through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which put unemployed people to work during the Great Depression. That type of help from the federal government no longer exists.

As with most things in life, there is no free lunch. It will cost money to take meaningful action to alleviate our storm water and related sewage problems. Individuals, businesses, government and institutions are all going to have to be part of the solution.

Whether Freedom Industries is the only serious water polluter in our state is highly questionable. But there can be no question that Huntington must act now to improve its antiquated sewer system.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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