CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA — On Monday, West Virginia officials began lifting the water bans that had affected nine of the state’s counties since Thursday, when as much as 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to clean coal spilled into the Elk River. Residents in the affected regions celebrated when they heard the news, which brought a welcome end to brushing teeth with bottled water and trekking to friends’ houses and community centers to shower.
But for some West Virginia residents, the ban’s end presents a new fear: that rather than use the spill to fight for tougher environmental regulations, the lawmakers, residents, and rest of the country will soon forget that the spill ever happened.
“It’ll be the same song and dance again,” Charleston attorney Rich McGervey said. “Because it’s the same song and dance that happens every time. It’s always ‘We can’t afford it; we can’t tax the industry more than they’re already taxed, they’re already over-regulated.’”
McGervey’s lack of optimism is not unfounded. Three years ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board urged the state to adopt stricter chemical oversight rules after an explosion at a Bayer CropSciences plant killed two workers. Their recommendation is still on the books, having never made it past proposal stage.
But many see a critical opportunity now, following such a highly-publicized disaster, for the state to re-examine the recommendation, which would require safety plans for chemical companies — plans that would be subject to regular government audits — and give the public more power in monitoring companies’ safety performance. And since the state legislature is beginning its session in the immediate wake of the water crisis, there’s also an opportunity for new legislation aimed at tightening the regulatory control on chemical companies, something state lawmakers are already pushing.
“The inaction [of Freedom Industries] is an indictment to the idea that companies can self-report and self-regulate,” State Delegate Stephen Skinner (D-Jefferson) said. “I absolutely see some legislation coming out of all this.”
West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall) has also called for an investigation into the state’s current laws, to see whether loopholes that exempted Freedom Industries from reporting the spill within 15 minutes of discovery need to be closed.
But leaders on the national level are less enthusiastic about potential new rules. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) was noncommittal when asked whether he would pursue legislative changes following the spill, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) also hasn’t said one way or another whether he’s interested in new legislation.
For some residents, this initial hesitation of their senators and representatives is indicative of the ties these leaders have not just to the chemical industry, but to the coal industry, which they say is the reason this chemical was being stored in West Virginia the first place. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D-WV) was quick to tell reporters that he didn’t think the coal industry was to blame for the incident, but Beverly Steenstra, a musician and Charleston, native, said the governor’s defense of the coal industry is just one more example of how industry rules the state.
“I’ll be 50 this year, and very little has changed,” she said of her state. “There are some groups that have been instrumental in getting legislation passed that helps the environment to some degree, but it’s always one step forward, two steps back.”
Others in West Virginia don’t feel that there’s a strong connection between the chemical spill and lax regulation of the coal industry. Will Watkins, history teacher at Winfield High School, said that people in West Virginia typically have set opinions about coal already, and a disaster like the chemical spill likely won’t sway them.
“I’m for coal,” he said. “I don’t think [the spill]‘s really indicative of the larger issue, or has anything to do with the nature of the coal business in general. Using this for a platform is reaching and using an unfortunate situation to fuel an argument that has little to do with the situation.”
McGervey is more apt to agree with Steenstra. He’s doubtful that meaningful legislation will be passed in West Virginia anytime soon because of the coal industry’s hold on the state.
“As soon as the crisis is in the rearview mirror, it’s back to business as usual,” he said. “‘Oh, we need the coal jobs; oh we need the fracking jobs; oh we need the industry jobs.’”
But McGervey said he thinks if West Virginia is to move forward, more environmental regulation is necessary to help protect the state from future crises like the chemical spill.
“We need more regulation, period,” he said. “We need more funding for the regulators. We need more inspectors. We need to pass laws that are actually enforced. We can’t take the excuse anymore that the industry might leave, because they’re not going to. And if they do, we need to find something else that doesn’t poison our children to make a living.”