The West Virginia chemical spill

Limit 3 on all water sign

This week, while hosting the Allegheny Front radio program, I talked with Ken Ward Jr., the environmental reporter for the Charleston Gazette, about the chemical spill in Charleston, W. Va.,  that left people living without water.

About 300,000 people in West Virginia were without water to drink, wash clothing and bathe in after a chemical spill at a Freedom Industries site, which hadn't been inspected since 1991.

A leak from a chemical storage tank into the Elk River polluted the water supply, leaving people in nine counties without safe drinking water when thousands of gallons of a chemical used in the processing of coal affected water as far downstream as Cincinnati. Freedom Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy today, according to the Charleston Gazette.

Ward was able to speak with some of the first inspectors on the scene at Freedom Industries.

"What I was told by the inspectors was that the company had put one cinder block and one forty- or fifty-pound bag of basically glorified cat litter out to try to contain the spill and the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] inspectors described that as just totally, completely inadequate," Ward said.

He said the only permit the facility held was a storm-water permit, which wouldn't typically make it subject to inspections. So this allowed the facility to skirt regulatory scrutiny.

"Most environmental agencies on the state level around the country don't inspect storm-water permit holders if that's the only permit the place has," Ward said. "So it's not especially unusual that this sort of facility wouldn't have received an inspection."

But "that doesn't mean somebody at our DEP couldn't have said 'Oh gosh' this thing is just a mile and a half from a water intake that serves 300,000 people.’ But, apparently, nobody did that," he said.

"It's a dirty little secret in this country that most workplaces are not inspected by environmental inspectors or workplace-safety inspectors," Ward said.

He said it's unclear whether the water problems in Charleston will help push better regulations on chemicals or on the coal industry in the state. But some citizens he spoke to are very concerned, he said.

At a recent press briefing, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, drew a clear line between the spill and the coal industry, Ward pointed out.

"When the word coal was mentioned, the governor got very defensive and said this had nothing to do with coal. 'This wasn't a coal mine, this was a chemical (storage facility),' defying the fact that this was a facility that was storing and selling this particular chemical to the coal industry,” Ward said.

"It's hard to say what the long-term political impact will be," he said. "West Virginia, unfortunately, has a long line of disasters in our history."

The Allegheny Front is an environmental news program heard on radio stations throughout Pennsylvania.