Lines formed early Saturdayas local residents in Kanawha County (W.Va.) flocked to distribution centers to load up on bottled water, Jan. 11, 2014. 
Michael Switzer/AP

Good news for West Virginians: Clean water is on the horizon


West Virginia residents received good news Monday: clean water is making its comeback.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin at a press conference Monday afternoon said the state was lifting the water restrictions for some areas whose water supply was affected by last week’s chemical spill into the Elk River.

“The ban is being lifted in a strict, methodical manner to help ensure the water system is not overwhelmed by excessive demand, thereby causing more water quality and service issues,” Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, added.

As testing and clean-up continues for the state’s water supply, questions about West Virginia’s safety regulations for chemical companies have begun floating to the surface. New reports over the weekend revealed that Freedom Industries’ storage tanks, the site of the spill, has not been subject to a state or federal inspection since 1991.

“West Virginia has a pattern of resisting federal oversight and what they consider E.P.A. interference, and that really puts workers and the population at risk,” Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the New York Times on Sunday. 

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But state officials are fighting back against suggestions that there was an oversight in regulation. At a press conference Sunday evening, Randy Huffman, cabinet secretary for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said the storage tanks were not inspected on a regular basis because the site was not a process facility.

“They simply brought the materials in and they stored them in the tanks and then shipped them out,” Huffman said. “There’s not an environmental permit at this time that was required.”

A team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is scheduled to arrive Monday to begin investigating the spill. “Our goal is to find out what happened to allow a leak of such magnitude to occur and to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place to prevent a similar incident from occurring,” CSB chair Rafael Moure-Eraso said in a statement on Saturday.

The CSB previously investigated a chemical plant explosion in West Virginia in 2008, and had recommended the state create a program to prevent future accidents and spills in the Kanawha Valley. But, as the Charleston Gazette reported Sunday, that suggestion never went anywhere. 

Former State Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Michael Lewis in 2011 told the CSB the state would not be moving forward with creating a new program to address future incidents.

“We came to a consensus that we did not, at this time, have the expertise in-house to draft the appropriate legislation that would be needed to develop the type of program suggested in your report,” Lewis wrote.

Coal and West Virginia

Good news for West Virginians: Clean water is on the horizon