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Are new regulations tough enough to prevent another West Virginia chemical spill?

April 16, 2014 at 6:39 PM EDT
Water Supply Threaten In Charleston Community Of Over 300,000 After Chemical Leak
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the continuing fallout from a major chemical spill in a West Virginia river earlier this year. Anger and anxiety among residents has spurred new calls for action and legislation.

It’s been three months since Charleston, West Virginia, suffered one of the worst contaminations of drinking water in U.S. history.

On January 9, a storage tank at Freedom Industries leaked up to 10,000 gallons of the chemical MCHM, used in coal processing. Some of it ran into the Elk River, just upstream from a water treatment plant that serves the Charleston region. The spill quickly led to shutting down the water supply for nine counties.

More than 300,000 people were affected, and the utility, West Virginia American Water, struggled to figure out how bad the contamination was.

JEFF MCINTYRE, President, West Virginia American Water: In other words, what kind of quantities can be present in drinking water and not pose harm to our customers? We don’t know that the water is not safe, but I can’t say it is safe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By the end of January, frustrated residents turned out at a town hall, demanding answers.

SHAMAYA LEWIS: Who do I trust? Do I trust the water quality specialist that’s been told to call me and I have been continually following up on?  I spoke to him again yesterday. Or do I trust you all to go ahead and let my children, you know, bathe and stuff in the water? I’m extremely frustrated. I just want to know, who do you trust?

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the weeks since, the do-not-use order for water has since been lifted in all nine counties. A federal investigation of the Freedom Industries site is continuing, and the company itself has filed for federal bankruptcy protection.

Earlier this month, a bill passed by a U.S. Senate committee creates new regulations and requirements for above-ground storage tanks. It does include exemptions, including potentially for some chemicals.

Back in West Virginia, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has already signed a law establishing new regulations on storage, inspection and emergency response.

But many observers wonder just how tough the implementation of new regulations will be.

We talk to two who are following all of this. Evan Osnos is an author and he’s writer for “The New Yorker” magazine. And Ashton Marra, she is the statehouse reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Welcome to you both.

Ashton Marra, to you first. What is the — what is the feeling now in West Virginia? Are people drinking the water?

ASHTON MARRA, West Virginia Public Broadcasting: You know, there’s no reliable source of information that tells us, yes or no, people are drinking the water.

There’s a survey being conducted by the local county health department and another survey by our state Bureau for Public Health. But right now, all we have is anecdotal evidence. I can tell you from my interaction with colleagues, people through my reporting, it seems that life is pretty much back to normal.

But, anecdotally, I know that mothers, especially mothers of young children, pregnant women, they are still cautious about using the water, especially ingesting it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ashton Marra, is there a sense, with this new state law passed, though, that people are better protected because there’s now new regulation?

ASHTON MARRA: I think we’re starting to get there.

As the law made its way through the Statehouse, it became more and more comprehensive. The environmentalist groups, a lot of community action groups were glad to see that. But I think it’s going to be one of those that takes the test of time. Most of the most strict regulations coming from that law will be put through the rule-making procedure, basically, that our State Department of environmental protection will decide the specifics of that law.

So, I think it’s going to take looking in to those rules, seeing how they play out over the next couple of years, before we can really say whether or not that relationship between the public and the government has been fixed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Evan Osnos, you have written this piece for “The New Yorker” this month. You actually had been in West Virginia just after college, what, 15 years ago, and you went back to do this reporting, fascinating piece reporting on the complex relationship between the community, the coal industry, the chemical industries, and its relationship that’s changed over time.

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Yes, this turned out to be a story not just about a chemical leak, but really about how politics and the kinds of debates we have the proper role of government, for instance, can actually impact government services down to things as elemental as the delivery of safe drinking water.

And what you discover was that, over the course of the last 10 or 15 years, the way that West Virginia regulates chemical industries, coal industries has changed. And they have systematically reduced the way that the government can actually go in and inspect and police these facilities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you talk about the relationship and the effect that all this — that it has had on health, on safety of people there.

You report that, I guess in the last eight years, there have been five major industrial incidents. What did you find about the attitude of ordinary folks toward this — these industries that have been the lifeblood of the state?

EVAN OSNOS: This is what is so interesting.

Over the decades, of course, people have had a fluctuating relationship with the chemical industry, for instance. After all, if you were a chemical worker, you stood to earn twice as much as the average wage in the state. It put food on people’s tables.

So, for a long time, people were willing to look the other way when, for instance, the air tasted funny or the air smelled different or the water tasted funny. But the truth is that over the years there have been a series of industrial accidents that have galvanized the environmental community, galvanized regular citizens.

And they have begun to pay more attention to what’s happening to their health, and what they discovered wasn’t reassuring. So, over the course of the last few years, they have, for instance, petitioned the federal government to take over the way that the Clean Water Act is enforced in West Virginia. They have said that the state regulators are now near completely broken down, as they put it.

So there’s a real recognition that, at a certain point, the state was no longer carrying its end of the bargain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how did you find this bill affecting that debate?

EVAN OSNOS: Well, it did focus attention in a way that none of these accidents before really had.

And the reason is that this bill hit the state capitol — in fact, it hit on the second day of the annual meeting of the state legislature. It forced the conversation in a way that the previous ones had not, because, after all, if it’s a leak, for instance, up in the hills, it doesn’t affect people the same way. It doesn’t drive the conversation.

And what you have are these town hall meetings where people were flooding in and saying, we no longer trust our state legislators, and we don’t trust our elected officials to be acting in our best interests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ashton Marra, we saw in that tape just a moment ago — in fact, a woman was asking that very question. How do we know who to trust here?

What — in your reporting, what are you finding about the level of trust between citizens, especially those in this affected area, and the people who they thought were protecting them?

ASHTON MARRA: In the months following this chemical leak, I think it’s quite obvious that there — that that level of trust has been broken.

Lawmakers, as they worked on this chemical spill bill, a way to regulate these above-ground storage tanks, their main concern was rebuilding that trust. We heard that over and over again in speeches and debates on both the House and Senate floor here in West Virginia during our session.

But, like I said earlier, I think it’s honestly just a test of time. Can we recover from this? Can our legislators and our lawmakers rebuild that trust in the community? That’s something we will have to wait and see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All this happens, Evan Osnos, as the state as — you also write about how the state is changing politically. A lot is at stake here. There’s a big Senate race in West Virginia this year.

How are the public officials in West Virginia sorting through this right now?

EVAN OSNOS: Well, historically, West Virginia was a Democratic state. This was a place that going back to days of FDR had really felt that it was close to the federal government, relied on the federal government for help.

But over the last 10 or 15 years, as the coal industry has found itself in economic distress, it has organized politically very effectively. And so it has supported candidates for government in West Virginia who have been — we can say they have been assertive in making sure that the voice of the coal industry was heard in government.

And so over the course of the last few years, it’s now become difficult for somebody who takes a stand against the coal industry to make sure that you’re going to get a fair shake and that you will make it through your next election.

I think this week, what we have seen that is that it has changed that debate a bit. It has forced people to talk about the fact that the coal industry maybe has more of a say in government than people want it to have in West Virginia. There were candidates, for instance, who I spoke to who said, if I take a stand against the coal industry, I know that I will be targeted in my next election.

They were worried that if they took interest in this chemical leak, that they might not make it through. I think that the upswell of public attention, the clear indication that people want a change is a sign that some of those candidates may in fact be able to continue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ashton Marra, is there — is there any kind of consensus about who or what is at fault? How much of the blame are people placing on the industry, on this particular company, which, as we said, has filed for bankruptcy, and how much on the regulators?

ASHTON MARRA: I think a majority of the complaints so far have been put toward the industry.

It’s the industry’s fault, is what a lot of people think. But I think, as the — as investigation has unfolded, we have seen that this is partially the government’s fault as well. Our state Department of Environmental Protection wasn’t equipped to handle or to regulate this type of industry, but it was something that was overlooked. It was a loophole here in state law, and honestly is a loophole in federal law as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Evan Osnos, just finally, what you’re saying is that that is a relationship — this relationship we’re talking about is changing before our very eyes.

EVAN OSNOS: It is.

I think this is a moment when people are starting to demand more of their elected officials, and say, it’s up to you to set the priorities for state regulators, to make sure that they hold companies to account and ultimately to protect the public interest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Evan Osnos, Ashton Marra, we thank you.

EVAN OSNOS: Thanks.