Last week's major chemical spill into West Virginia's Elk River, which cut off water to more than 300,000 people, came in a state with a long and troubled history of regulating the coal and chemical companies that form the heart of its economy. "We can't just point a single finger at this company," said Angela Rosser, the executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition. "We need to look at our entire system and give some serious thought to making some serious reform and valuing our natural resources over industry interests." She said lawmakers have yet to explain why the storage facility was allowed to sit on the river and so close to a water treatment plant that is the largest in the state.
It's been four days since a coal-processing chemical leaked into the Elk River, leaving 300,000 residents in West Virginia's Kanawha Valley without water service. A nine-county area is still under a "state of emergency," and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) cannot yet give locals a timeline of when conditions will return to normal.
The governor did say last night, however, that test results "are trending in the right direction," adding, "I believe that we are at a point where we can say that we see light at the end of the tunnel."
The crisis began Thursday when a business called Freedom Industries -- that's actually the company's name -- accidentally leaked 4-methylcyclohexane methanol from a ruptured storage tank near the Elk River. The chemical, known as MCHM, is used to wash coal. Government agencies have rushed to respond, addressing the spill and shipping bottled water to the area for local residents.
But because officials in West Virginia were aware of the hazardous chemicals being stored at the facilities, coupled with the fact that the storage tanks were not inspected regularly, it's probably time for a broader conversation about the importance of government regulations.
If recent history is any guide, once the crisis is resolved, the policy debate will fall into a familiar pattern: conservatives and their industry allies will insist that government regulation of free enterprise must always be resisted.
But in this case, it was the private sector that caused the calamity; it's the public sector helping put things right; and it's government regulations that can help prevent similar crises in the future.