West Virginia’s chemical accident program was never funded

Grae Stafford Freelance Photographer
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West Virginia was warned three years ago by a team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to instigate a program to prevent hazardous chemical accidents, but the West Virginia  Department of Health and Human Resources never granted the legal authority needed to begin the program and it has “gone nowhere,” the West Virginia Gazzette-Mail reports.

The 169-page “Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program” that was put together by the CSB was drawn up after a 2008 incident at Bayer CropScience, where two people were killed. The CSB reiterated its findings and recommendations after investigating another fatal accident at a Dupont plant in Belle in January 2010 where one person died.

This revelation comes hard on the heels of the disastrous Jan. 9 chemical spill at Freedom Industries on the Elk River, which contaminated drinking water for in excess of 300,000 people across the Kanawha Valley (approximately 16 percent of West Virginia’s population). “Kanawha County officials never funded the plan,” the Gazzette reports, “and seldom mention that the CSB recommendation was even made.”

The CSB plan was “modeled after a highly successful chemical safety law in Contra Costa County, Calif.,” the Gazzette continues. At it’s heart it “would require companies to submit safety plans, require regular government safety audits of plans, and give the public a greater say in monitoring safety performance at local companies.” The program was to be paid for “by a fee paid by companies that make, use and store dangerous chemicals.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, speaking at a press conference on Saturday, said, “There are certain reporting things that companies have to do … And I do think we have to look at them to make sure this kind of incident does not happen again.”

But people familiar with the situation have voiced doubts about much changing, as any legislation would need “unified support between industry, the public and government,” the Gazzette reports.

With the focus now being cast on the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, new facts are beginning to emerge and in the light of of the Elk River accident, those decisions are under renewed scrutiny. In June 2011, after the Dupont accident, then WVDHHR secretary Michael Lewis informed the CSB that the Department of Health and Human Resources and the W.V. Department of Environmental Protection would not be implementing the recommendations.

“We came to a consensus that we did not, at this time, have the expertise in-house to draft the appropriate legislation that would be needed to develop the type of program suggested in your report.”

Lewis did intend for his agency to work with the governor’s office and lawmakers to “study the issue.” The West Virginia Gazette reports that, “It was not immediately clear over the weekend what happened to that potential study — but [Department of Health and Human Resources] has not moved forward with a chemical accident prevention plan of any kind,and the CSB lists the recommendation on its website as ‘open.'”

The oversight of safety at industrial plants in West Virginia by federal investigators has been minimal. At the Dupont plant, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had not conducted an inspection “for more than five years” prior to the accident. In the case of Freedom Industries, OSHA has “never inspected”  it and the only record of an inspection was by the W.V. Department of Environmental Protection in 1991 when the site was owned and operated by a different company.

For the residents and businesses  who depend on the Elk River for their drinking water in one of the most economically depressed states in the nation, the accident has caused serious ripples — not only in their day-to-day lives, but on their balance sheets as well, with only a small number being able to reopen on Sunday. The story of Lesa Crouch, a Chili’s manager in Charleston, encapsulates the relief at being able to reopen: “My employees are all happy, they live paycheck to paycheck, and this helps them.”

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department had issued an order  after the accident  that “all restaurants and bars that have a health license to close following the chemical leak.” These businesses are now being allowed to reopen but they are required to submit written plans to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department detailing how they will be acquiring fresh water first. They will then be required to undergo an inspection by a sanitarian.

Only after they have passed, will they be allowed to reopen. This has lead to a scramble as businesses try to secure a steady supply of fresh water. While Chili’s began shipping crates of water to it’s Charleston location other businesses, especially locally owned businesses have not been so lucky.

Criticism regarding heavy industry in West Virginia has been strong and swift. Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition said, “Clean water is essential for life. We cannot cut corners in ensuring that our drinking water supply is protected.”

Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign director Mary Anne Hitt said, “Coal mining communities are faced with the dangers of water pollution from coal mining and pollution every day … This spill pulls the curtain back on the coal industry’s widespread and risky use of dangerous chemicals, and is an important remainder that coal-related pollution poses a serious danger to nearby communities.”

Gov. Tomblin pushed back hard over the weekend at briefings saying, “This was not a coal company, this was a chemical supplier, where the leak occurred. … As far as I know there was no coal company within miles.”

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