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EDITORIAL

Waterless, but not clueless

As the West Virginia water crisis nears Week Three, the off-colored, Twizzlers-scented water coming from taps in nine counties around Charleston isn’t the only thing that’s Just check out the answers from Dr. Letitia Tierney, the top doc at the state the Bureau of Public Health, in a conference call late last week arranged by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

In a response to questions submitted by citizens in the stricken communities, Tierney assures that burns and rashes reported following baths or showers in water deemed by experts to be safe again – i.e., sufficiently free of Crude MCHM, the little-known chemical used to clean coal – and are absolutely no cause for concern.

The safety of water has been foremost in West Virginia since Jan. 9, when Kanawha Valley residents began reporting an odd licorice smell. State officials dispatched to investigate discovered at least 7,500 gallons of the nasty stuff had leaked into the Elk River from a rickety Freedom Industries storage facility.

As luck would have it – actually it was poor public planning – the chemicals were stored just upstream from the intake of West Virginia American Water. By dinnertime 300,000 state residents had been told they could use their water only to flush toilets and fight fires.

Common sense would tell anyone that a foaming agent that works to wash coal would not be so good to clean people, but here’s Tierney’s take on what ailed the patients showing up at area ERs: “Basically, it’s red skin. Everyone has different sensitivities and as we move through the flushing process, sediment has been stirred up from your hot water tank and the pipes. Some sediment may be coming through the shower that you don’t even see.”

Well, what about the residents who have found themselves vomiting after given the all-clear to resume water use, when they became overwhelmed by the chemical’s smell as they flushed out their pipes. Why, Tierney was asked, would that be?

“It is important to remember we have old pipes, new pipes, copper pipes and iron pipes — flushing is causing the sediment to be stirred up,” she said. “Even small amounts of copper can cause people to feel sick to their stomach and can make people vomit.”

OK, so why are so many people going to the hospital?

To Tierney, there basically three reasons: 1) the flu; 2) germy hands and 3) the heebie-jeebies. “We’re in the middle of flu season and virus season. Many of us haven’t been able to consistently wash our hands with soap and water. While the sanitizer is good for cleaning, it isn’t great for eliminating a virus. Some people are getting these viruses, as many people do every winter. In addition, a lot of people are getting very anxious. Anxiety is a real diagnosis and it can be really hard on people and it’s OK to be seen by a health professional to ensure you’re OK.”

A lot of West Virginians aren’t buying Tierney’s explanations nor the reassurances being offered up by Tomblin, West Virginian American Water officials and others. The fact is, no studies exist on how Crude MCHM affects humans. Officials gave the all-clear to resume water use after researching studies done on how long it took rats to die after being exposed to MCHM – not exactly the same as how drinking the stuff might affect people. And then it emerges that the research they based that directive on involved pure MCHM rather than what actually leaked into the drinking water, which was Crude MCHM – a mixture of MCHM and other toxins.

In what might have been the most honest message to come from the state, health officials told expectant women to continue drinking bottled water rather than the “safe” tap water. How can anyone deny that if pregnant consumers need the bottled stuff, so do all the residents in the affected areas?

What must happen now: All West Virginians must speak up and demand truly clean water for all affected.

What must not happen: West Virginians who can afford to indulge a sense of caution and continue to buy bottled water will do so. West Virginians who can’t afford bottled water will find themselves drinking the tap water that no one can be sure isn’t still tainted.

Tomblin’s number is 304-558-2000.

 

Reserve fund a good option to stave off budget cuts

Some West Virginia lawmakers disapprove of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s plan to use money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to plug a deficit in the state government’s budget.

While their desire to keep the Rainy Day Fund healthy is understandable, it’s also clear rainy days are here in regard to the state’s budget situation. That means it may well be time to pull some money from that fund to meet the state’s constitutional requirement of a balanced budget.

Tomblin’s budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 totals $4.726 billion, or about $146 million more than expected revenues. To make up part of that gap, he’s proposing tapping into the Rainy Day Fund to the tune of about $84 million.

Using the fund to fill a budget deficit has not been done before, and some lawmakers are worried that it could set a poor precedent, paving the way for the fund to be raided again in the future and hurting the state’s credit rating and financial underpinnings.

The state has been channeling money into the Rainy Day Fund for years, to the point that it now has about $920 million. State officials have boasted about how West Virginia has one of the healthier reserve funds in the country.

Meanwhile, Tomblin has been ordering spending cuts, which are beginning to take a toll, particularly on Marshall University and other higher education institutions in the state.

For the current budget year, universities and colleges, as well as various state agencies, were hit with a 7.5 percent budget cut. Then, just last week, Tomblin ordered a combined $33 million more in cuts for the remainder of this budget year. That means state aid for Marshall will shrink by about $7 million altogether.

But there’s more: Tomblin’s budget plan calls for Marshall and other higher education institutions to expect a further reduction in state aid of 3.75 percent in the coming year. Marshall already has restructured and left positions vacant to absorb part of the reductions, but it still has raised tuition and fees, making the cost of an education higher. Just how much of the cost can be shifted to students and families?

Of course, there is more to the budget picture than colleges and universities. Other factors are at play, including whether the pay raises Tomblin is proposing for teachers, other school personnel and state employees are justified. Also, State Budget Director Mark McKown told lawmakers that he “would think there are still accounts out there with some excess money in them,” a comment that begs the question of why that “excess money” hasn’t been calculated, collected and tossed back into the budget. That should be done.

Another alternative is to raise taxes and/or fees, but that’s not likely to happen.

Borrowing from the Rainy Day Fund seems an obvious answer for the coming year. Officials expect the budget picture to improve within a couple of years, and meanwhile options for shoring up the state’s budget structure should be explored. Even with $84 million removed from it, the fund still will be healthy and the money can be restored during better times.

But for now, it’s time to stop the rain.

— From the Jan. 13 The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington

 

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