Will W.Va. water emergency spur greater environmental oversight?

January 13, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT
West Virginians received hopeful news about the chemical spill that contaminated their water supply. Authorities announced they would begin to lift the ban on tap water for residents in certain areas. Judy Woodruff talks to Ashton Marra of West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Coral Davenport of The New York Times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A few drips of good news greeted residents of West Virginia today, but the fallout from last week’s chemical spill is far from over.

There’s finally relief for some of the 300,000 West Virginians who’ve been unable to drink, cook or even bathe with tap water for five days.

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced today that test results are now below toxic levels.

GOV. EARL RAY TOMBLIN, D-W.Va.: The numbers we have today look good, and we’re finally at a point where the do-not-use order has been lifted in certain areas. We have made a lot of progress, but I ask all West Virginians to continue to be patient as we work to safely restore service to the affected areas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It can’t happen soon enough for people who scrounged for ice and bottled water over the weekend. More than 230 visited emergency rooms complaining of exposure symptoms; 14 were admitted. Still, some were undaunted. A local beauty pageant went on as planned.

WOMAN: We cannot take showers, so some girls are using water bottles to wash their hair, using a lot of dry shampoo, baby powder, lots of hair spray and teasing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The crisis began Thursday, when 7,500 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol leaked from a storage tank at Freedom Industries. Some of the substance, used in coal processing, escaped a containment area and ran into the Elk River, just upstream from the region’s water treatment plant.

The breach shut down the water supply in nine West Virginia counties, an area that includes Charleston. The plant is not subject to state inspections, but local leaders now say there were obvious problems.

KENT CARPER, Kanawha County Commission: You can actually see where there were cracks in it, where the chemical came through it. The condition of the plant was not good. The danger was known by the previous owner and the danger was known to the current owner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Federal authorities have opened an investigation of the Freedom Industries site.

Meanwhile, the water company is watching contamination levels downstream.

JEFF MCINTYRE, West Virginia American Water Company: Water sampling continues on the Elk, Kanawha and Ohio rivers to detect any evidence of the chemical. We expect there will be considerable dilution in the rivers that will work in our favor and mitigate the impact of the spill on the water in Huntington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As for Charleston, water officials say the licorice odor may linger for a while, as water service is restored in stages.

We turn now to Ashton Marra. She is in Charleston and has been covering the spill for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. I spoke with her a short time ago.

Ashton Marra, thank you for talking with us.

So, what is the very latest?

 ASHTON MARRA, West Virginia Public Broadcasting: The very latest is now two zones have been approved to open and begin flushing out their homes and their businesses, and able to use water again.

Now, those zones have been prioritized, as West Virginia American Water president told us earlier today, to zones that include hospitals and the highest population density areas. So zone one and two have been approved to start the flushing process. Both of those include major hospitals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And tell us in brief what is this flushing process?

ASHTON MARRA: Basically, the flushing process is a three-step method.

First of all, you’re turning on your hot water faucets for 15 minutes. And then you’re turning on your cold water for five minutes, and then you have to go through the process of cleaning and flushing all of the appliances in your home that use water. There’s a very, very detailed list, things like washing machines, dishwashers, icemakers, any type of water filters.

There is this detailed process for each of those appliances. So this is something that is not really very easy. It might not be common sense or there might be things that people could forget. So it’s very important for West Virginians who are able to start using their water again to check on those protocols, and West Virginia American Water has made those available.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But once they do this process, they are then able to drink the water?

ASHTON MARRA: We have been told that once they go through the process, completely flushing out of their homes and their businesses, the water is good for use.

The tests that are coming out of the treatment facility show that the water is testing at a safe level, safe for consumption, safe for use, safe for bathing. So, anything — after you get all of that water out of your home system, the water is good to go. No further precautions need to be taken.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ashton, you have been reporting on this story since it started a few days ago.

How are people — finally, how are they holding up?

ASHTON MARRA: I think people have been frustrated, to say the least.

This is obviously a hard time for everyone. But I can say that emergency management officials have really been handling this very well. People who are stuck in their homes, the elderly, maybe sick, they haven’t had to do anything. They have had water and supplies delivered straight to them.

Now, as far as businesses go, you have to think about these people who work in restaurants, who are making minimum wage. This is a difficult time for them, because they haven’t been working. But we do have some lawmakers who are putting a campaign together, asking West Virginians, as they return to these restaurants, to tip a little bit extra. Think of those people who are struggling to make ends meet and have lost a few days of work and need a little bit of extra help.

But we are recovering, and we will get there slowly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I know that’s good news to everybody involved and all of us watching.

Ashton Marra with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, thank you.

ASHTON MARRA: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A number of questions have been raised about the regulation and oversight involved in this case and other recent accidents in the region.

Coral Davenport has been reporting on those as the energy and environmental correspondent for The New York Times.

Coral Davenport, welcome to the program.

As we just reported, this plant wasn’t subject to state inspections. Why not?

CORAL DAVENPORT, The New York Times: Judy, it turns out the plant hadn’t been inspected since 1991.

But that was legal under West Virginia state law. The state law stipulates that, because this was a storage facility, rather than a production or manufacturing facility, it wasn’t subject to any regulations, inspections, permitting.

And so one of the first developments that’s come from this is an immediate call to change the state regulation. The governor and the head of the state environment department are talking about introducing some legislation that would at least firm up that inspection process.

It would add — you know, add annual inspections to storage facilities. But there are a lot of complaints broadly about the regulatory environment in West Virginia and also West Virginia’s history of accidents and disasters related to the chemical and coal industry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we — we also just heard the county commissioner, I think it was, said that the current owner of this plant and the previous owner knew, he said, that the conditions were poor in this plant. What is known about the state of this plant?

CORAL DAVENPORT: Well, that is — that’s sort of slowly unfolding — or more rapidly unfolding as we go on.

The attorney general has launched an investigation. And although we don’t yet know — you know, there haven’t yet been allegations of violations or any kind of criminal allegations, the attorney general’s office did say that, when you have a spill or a disaster, an accident of this magnitude, they’re almost certain to find major violations, possibly a violation of the law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Any evidence of previous accidents there?

CORAL DAVENPORT: Not that we have seen, you know, not that we have seen from these particular companies.

What’s interesting again is, you know, this facility has a clean record from the EPA, no record of violations whatsoever. But that’s also because there haven’t — there haven’t been any inspections. So, its record is clean, but there really isn’t anything — you know, there hasn’t been any inspections to make that record.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the fact that this is a plant, a storage plant for a chemical, but it’s located on a river and very close to a water treatment plant?

CORAL DAVENPORT: On a river just a couple miles up from a water treatment plant. Again, this is something where a lot of local advocacy groups who have been pushing on this for a while say this is an example of sort of a systemic environment of lax regulations in West Virginia.

This is an area, the Kanawha Valley is known as Chemical Valley, because the chemical industry is the core central part of its economy. It has major chemical plants, companies like Dow, like DuPont. And these — these are very influential both in the region and in state politics.

So this is, you know, kind of one of the reasons that these outside groups are saying, you know, these chemical companies seem to have a lot more influence in weakening regulations than — you know, than necessarily — than the push by environmental advocates.

And, again, this is — just in this area, this area known as Chemical Valley, this is the third chemical accident in five years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going to leave it there, a lot of questions being raised, for sure.

Coral Davenport with The New York Times, thank you.

CORAL DAVENPORT: Good to be here. Thanks.