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Scandal, not spill, captures our attention

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A big story erupted in the eastern part of our country late last week where leadership failure disrupted the lives of thousands and ended with an apology but not the acceptance of blame.

And no, I’m not talking about Chris Christie and the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

I’m referring to the spill of 7,500 gallons of the coal-cleaning chemical 4-methylcylohexanemethanol from Freedom Industries into the Elk River in West Virginia. The chemical spill happened just one-and-a-half miles upriver of the intake for the West Virginia American Water plant, which provides clean water for 300,000 residents in the Charleston area.

Local residents were immediately warned not to drink, cook with, bathe or pretty much have any contact with their water.

But it turns out the warning wasn’t immediate.

Officials from Freedom Industries didn’t report the leak until hours after residents began complaining of a “licorice” type smell in their water, according to The Charleston Gazette. And the company only reported it then because Department of Environmental Protection officials who responded to an odor complaint went to the facility, located the spill and told company officials that’s what they needed to do, the newspaper said.

Remember, this is now about four hours after DEP officials first received word of the odor complaints.

You might have missed the story. It wasn’t a high priority for much of the national media. The Sunday morning talk shows were too busy wondering how the Christie scandal would affect his presidential chances two years from now.

The Gazette, particularly environmental reporter Ken Ward Jr., has done an outstanding job of covering the story and asking many important questions, including why the spill happened in the first place and why there was no disaster plan in place to deal with the spill of toxic chemicals.

The reporting reveals that warning signs were in place, but seemingly ignored. The facility hadn’t been inspected by the DEP since 1991, when it was owned by a different company. The Gazette said Freedom Industries sent state officials a form last February telling them they were storing thousands of pounds of the chemical that has caused such damage over the past several days. West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said his company didn’t know much about the chemical’s possible dangers.

Freedom Industries President Gary Southern apologized to area residents but has said little else about the spill.

As of Tuesday morning, The Gazette reported 267 people had been seen at nine hospitals, 14 had been admitted and four were still hospitalized, all related to the tainted water.

I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between this situation and an ongoing issue we’ve seen in Wise County for years. Back in 2010, our newspaper did a series of stories on a possible link between water contamination and local oil and gas drilling. The energy industry provides many jobs around here, and the coal industry is a major employer in the Charleston area. In both cases, local residents are hesitant to criticize an industry that does so much for the local economy.

But too often it seems an industry will put profits above safety.

We don’t like to talk about regulations on business, especially in our state. We hear about how companies don’t like to do business in places that have excessive government regulations.

Too often we focus on the price of regulation rather than the cost of failure.

More regulation might have prevented disastrous events such as Charleston’s spill or even the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. But I don’t think that’s the answer. As both cases have taught us, common-sense restructuring of the current regulatory process would be a better way to go.

We don’t need more regulations, just better ones.

When you’re dealing with water, individuals, industry and government all have a responsibility to protect that precious resource.

As many Bridgeport residents can testify, you often don’t know how valuable water is until you find yourself without it for a few days.

That’s certainly something we should all, media included, pay more attention to.

Brian Knox is special projects manager for the Messenger.

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