W.Va. Legislature meets briefly amid water use ban

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A nine-county ban on water usage due to a chemical spill in the Elk River didn’t stop the West Virginia Legislature from meeting Friday, if only briefly.

The Senate met for less than seven minutes, taking care of minor business before adjourning until Monday. Only 22 of the chamber’s 34 members were present — 18 are needed for a quorum. Senate President Jeffrey Kessler said he wanted to show the Senate was still working during the emergency.

“I thought it was important to send a message that the Senate was still working. We’re still here and despite the fact that we’re under a state of emergency, we’re to go on with as much as you can with the affairs that you have to carry that are essential and then get home and take care of your families, which is exactly where we go next,” Kessler said.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, who is a pastor in Harpers Ferry, opened the Senate’s brief session with a prayer asking God for a quick resolution to the emergency. The House immediately gaveled in and out. House members would do the same thing each day that the water ban continues, Speaker Tim Miley said.

“It’s hard to conduct business if you can’t use the plumbing, you can’t take showers, and you can’t eat at restaurants, especially for those people who are coming in from out of town and have to stay at hotels,” said Miley, D-Harrison.

“I anticipate things being taken care of and the House being able to conduct its business on Monday. I’m an optimist. Wishful thinking. I have no information to suggest there’s a timetable. But I’m hopeful.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared the emergency Thursday after a chemical used in processing coal, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, leaked from a containment area at Freedom Industries’ operation in Charleston. The chemical inundated the Elk River and a nearby waste treatment plant.

Kessler also said the state passed a law within recent years to require mandatory reporting of all industrial accidents in response to coal mine and other accidents.

“I don’t know whether that or not that’s occurred in this instance,” Kessler said, adding that he didn’t learn of the accident until seeing it on the evening television news — hours after people first began complaining of the chemical smell in the water. “If there’s things of this nature that have the ability to disrupt an entire region, the economy and health and safety, there needs to be immediate reporting.”

He added, “I’ll look at the current law and see what happened here. The law that’s on the books may be perfectly adequate. It just may be an instance where they may or not have been compliance with it.”

He said there were precautions in place at the chemical facility in the event of a spill, but they failed.

“My immediate concern right now is cleaning it up and making sure the water’s restored to the 100,000-plus people that are now without water, which is going to be a public safety issue if it doesn’t get that resolved immediately.”

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