In the wake of spill, answers are needed

In the aftermath of the chemical leak that rendered the public water supply in the Kanawha Valley temporarily unusable, the initial focus has been, and rightly should be, assisting the hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses in the nine-county area who ave had their lives and livelihoods severely disrupted, mitigating the effect on the water supply, and  reventing any additional environmental damage.

While at the Capitol late last week for the legislative session, I was able to witness firsthand the initial impact on those in the Charleston area as residents scrambled to local grocery stores in search of bottled water and other supplies, and restaurants, hotels, schools and other businesses were forced to close their doors due to the lack of potable water. I think it’s also important to recognize the calmness and resiliency that the residents of the affected areas have exhibited and the outpouring of assistance from across the state, including the Eastern Panhandle, with truckloads of bottled water and personal sanitation supplies flowing to the impacted region. Local, state and federal officials, and others involved in the relief and restoration efforts should also be commended for their tireless efforts under very trying circumstances.

Once the public water supply has been restored and life begins to return to normal in the Kanawha Valley, there are clearly questions that will need to be examined. Among them, why was a chemical storage facility located such a short distance upstream from the water treatment facility serving hundreds of thousands of people not scrutinized more closely? According to initial media reports, the storage facility operator had filed a list of chemicals stored at the facility to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection as required by law, but despite the considerable investments in local and state agencies tasked with Homeland Protection and emergency preparedness, officials seemed illprepared to deal with what should have been a foreseeable risk.

Also, why was a plan for tougher chemical oversight submitted to state officials three years ago apparently ignored? And what if any inspections were conducted at the storage facility and why was the facility allowed to continue operations with a secondary containment system known to be in need of repair?

While these and other questions may ultimately point to the need for additional regulation, as the saying goes, you can’t legislate common sense. It’s certainly not possible to anticipate every conceivable risk, but it would seem the possibility of this particular scenario should have been more carefully considered. Though a semblance of normal activity will hopefully soon return to the Kanawha Valley, the confidence West Virginians may have had in those we expect to be safeguarding our communities will undoubtedly take longer to restore.

— Paul Espinosa, a Republican of Charles Town, represents the 66th District in the House of Delegates

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