Editorial: Both state, federal agencies should fill gaps in spill response
As West Virginia officials assess the government response to the chemical spill that tainted the water of 300,000 people in the Kanawha Valley, they should pay close attention to a report released this week reviewing the state's readiness to deal with such disasters.
Based on the report by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the state has some gaps to fill if it wants to be better prepared to deal with such emergencies. It's encouraging, however, to learn that the state appears to be taking some of the desired steps already.
In its review of the state's response to the Jan. 9 spill of Crude MCHM from at least one tank at Freedom Industries into the Elk River, the federal agency said West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources does not have a program and properly trained staff to assess chemical exposures such as what occurred in conjunction with that leak.
"Currently, there are no epidemiologists in positions that respond to acute chemical or radiological releases, or specifically tasked with natural disaster response," the report states. "There also are no programs to enhance occupational safety and health of responders."
Epidemiologists study the patterns, causes and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations. It was clear in the days and weeks after the Freedom Industries spill that having someone particularly knowledgeable with handling chemical accidents would have been helpful.
It was evident immediately after the spill was discovered that state officials and representatives of the affected water company were largely at a loss in regard to the potential dangers of the chemicals involved. To their credit, they did issue a do-not-use-the-water directive, which certainly made sense in light of the circumstances. However, there was a dearth of solid information about Crude MCHM, and there was no certain direction in the following days and weeks about how to assess whether people served by the plant in question were suffering negative consequences from either direct contact with water or inhaling any vapors.
Officials, both at the state and federal levels, waffled about whether the water was safe. They also suggested that hundreds of complaints about symptoms such as rashes and burning skin could be related to other health issues and not the spill, but eventually acknowledged that in most cases the symptoms likely were related to tainted water in the people's homes.
Having people on staff with more direct knowledge about chemical and other environmental hazards could well have improved the response and done much to answer the public's many questions.
The DHHR's Bureau of Public Health already has had staff members take training in dealing with environmental emergencies, a move in the right direction, and officials there say other improvements are planned.
That's good. Both the state -- and the federal agencies involved in responding to the chemical spill -- should take the toxic-substances agency's recommendations to heart and be better prepared if another similar disaster takes place.
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