West Virginia politicians consider chemical regulation after spill

Environmentalists skeptical after alleged lack of action on other issues, following spill that tainted water supply

Emma Del Torto of Charleston, W.Va., holds a sign during a demonstration at the state Capitol on Saturday, Jan.18, 2014. More than 100 people gathered to question their tap water's quality following a chemical spill that tainted the local water supply.
John Raby/AP

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and several U.S. senators on Monday proposed tighter regulations for chemical storage facilities after a spill contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people.

The governor's bill, which has not yet been filed, would mandate annual inspections of above-ground chemical tanks in West Virginia, and would require the administrators of water systems serving the public to draft emergency plans in case of spills.

Storage facilities would self-report the locations, construction and maintenance of tanks, and would file annual reports. They would have to give details of their spill-prevention mechanisms, and would be subject to penalties from the Department of Environmental Protection if they do not comply.

"This proposed legislation will ensure that all above-ground storage facilities are built and maintained consistent with required safety standards," Tomblin said.

The senators, including Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., plan to introduce a separate bill that aims to make the federal government set standards for state-run regulatory efforts.

Their proposal would require states to conduct inspections every three years of chemical facilities that could threaten a public water system.

Others would be inspected every five years. States could recoup costs from responding to emergencies.

Both bills aim to make locations and specifics of chemical storage sites publicly available.

Gov. Tomblin said that state authorities are working to restore public faith in the local water, and that it was up to individuals to decide whether they drink it.

"I drink it occasionally," he told Al Jazeera.

Manchin, a former West Virginia governor, told Al Jazeera that he is comfortable with the safety of the water – but that Americans are vulnerable due to the lack of regulation.

"We have 80,000 different types of chemicals that were being used in and consumed in this country every day. Only 200 have ever been examined, really thoroughly examined, to what effect they have on human life. That needs to change” Sen. Manchin told Al Jazeera correspondent Robert Ray.

Manchin also stressed the need for additional federal testing to determine what harm chemicals may pose to people.

Even 10 days after the spill – as local water authorities said flushing pipes had made water safe for anyone with the exception of pregnant women – taps still have the characteristic black-licorice odor of the chemical MCHM. Many people remain afraid to drink the water, which has sent hundreds to emergency rooms complaining of rashes and nausea after drinking or even touching it.

"My throat burned, I felt congested in my chest and I had a splitting headache,” local resident Karen Ireland told Al Jazeera.

"We are still getting complaints from various residents … that they are still smelling the chemical in their water stream,” said Lt. Paul Williams of the fire department in Marmet, a town outside Charleston.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged that available information was scarce about the chemical that spilled, crude MCHM, when officials established a safe level for people to start drinking the water again.

Tomblin, a Democrat, urged passage of a chemical storage regulatory program. The bill aims to address shortcomings that allowed 7,500 gallons of coal-cleaning chemicals to seep into the Elk River on Jan. 9, flowing 1.5 miles downstream and into West Virginia American Water Company's water supply.

Freedom Industries, which owned the plant that leaked the chemicals, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Friday.

Freedom Industries' alleged safety flaws, including a last-resort containment wall filled with cracks, went largely undetected – because as a facility that neither manufactured chemicals, produced emissions or stored chemicals underground, it was not subject to environmental regulations, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection officials have said.

The chemical that spilled also was not deemed hazardous enough for additional regulation.

State environmental regulators, however, made several routine visits to the Charleston site between 2002 and 2012, but found no violations.

Activists are skeptical that officials will be able to rein in polluters.

“The problem is that they haven't protected us for a number of years, so I'm not exactly sure what best real form of change is going to be here,” said Maya Nye, of an organization called People Concerned about Chemical Safety.

Many activists who have protested what they call blatant pollution by the coal industry accuse environmental regulators of being beholden to the industry. The chemical that leaked on Jan. 9 is used to clean coal and, according to activists, is the kind of material responsible for contaminating water in other parts of the state.

“The authorities don’t do much, and when they do, it is usually because people impacted by coal industry abuses have dogged the authorities into finally doing something. People here are really fed up that regulators and politicians just don’t seem to care about the major messes the industry creates,” said Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Sen. Manchin said that a "toxic" atmosphere in Washington, D.C., has prevented environmentalists and the chemical industry from finding middle ground on additional regulation.

On Jan. 14, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, responded to a reporter's question about the spill, saying there are enough regulations already.

He chided President Barack Obama, saying his administration ought to be "actually doing their jobs."

"I am entirely confident that there are ample regulations already on the books to protect the health and safety of the American people," Boehner said.

Manchin said Boehner made the statement "very quickly after (the spill) had happened," before the speaker knew about the lack of regulation for above-ground storage tanks. Manchin added that he is going to speak with Boehner about his bill.

"I think that John (Boehner) would be responsive once he sees what we are doing," Manchin said.

Freedom Industries has a bankruptcy court hearing scheduled for Tuesday afternoon in Charleston. The company’s bankruptcy status temporarily shields it from dozens of lawsuits, many by businesses that were shuttered for days under a water-use ban.

For now, wariness remains among residents in the nine counties affected by the spill.

"It's just something you don't want to drink unless you have to," said one person who was sitting in a car and waiting to pick up free water at a distribution center.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Al Jazeera correspondent Robert Ray contributed to this report.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter