The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 17, 2014

Chemical leak is a lesson in need for EPA regulation

By Nerissa Young

— The reported misjudgments of a fat man who may run for president took media precedence last weekend over 300,000 West Virginians without safe drinking water.

I kept waiting for Anderson Cooper to swoop into Charleston with the same righteous indignation he showed after Hurricane Katrina, but he never did.

Instead, the media elite were busy supposing whether an alleged grudge-induced traffic jam would ruin New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s chance of getting elected president.

Granted, if Christie became president, that could affect a lot of people. But were 300,000 people caught in that traffic jam? Besides, it was over and done with well before last weekend.

A colleague who works at The Washington Post said slow-moving disasters aren’t as interesting to the media, especially those in smaller media markets. That’s just a nice way of saying if it doesn’t have good video or happen in a state with political clout, who cares?

A friend who has been watching from across the country said West Virginia doesn’t look too good in the national media spotlight. It rarely does. The state is getting bashed because of lax regulations and inspections.

NPR’s “Morning Edition” had a good story on chemical leaks in other states, so West Virginia isn’t the only place where this is happening. And anyone who thinks his or her community is safe should think again.

Humans have been dumping things into the river from the moment they got to the bank. Whether digging a latrine ditch that emptied into the river or building huge industry alongside it, humans have let the poor slobs downriver deal with their pollutants.

Last weekend’s scare demonstrated just how dangerous that mentality is.

It was interesting to watch state legislators line up and vow to do whatever it takes to stop this from happening again. No doubt, some of these same legislators criticized President Obama during his re-election campaign, claiming his activist Environmental Protection Agency was out of control and putting West Virginians out of work.

They must think the EPA is something they can use when they want and hide out of sight when they don’t. Which do they prefer — regulations and a safer environment or none and sitting on an environmental time bomb?

Industry is not inherently evil, but companies that are poor corporate neighbors should be held accountable and literally made to pay for their lack of stewardship.

Last weekend’s spill should point out clearly to state leaders that the days of letting industry do whatever it wants as long as it pays somebody a wage are long past. West Virginia was fortunate that no lives were lost, but there’s no guarantee the next time.

Finally, I am not timid to criticize. Neither should I be timid to applaud.

The governor, his staff and Cabinet and West Virginia American Water get high marks for acting as quickly as possible to alleviate the danger. From news reports, no one knew much about this chemical or had any baseline data to determine its potential risks to humans.

They made remarkable speed while the capital was under siege and got service restored within the week.

God bless all the folks who worked extra hours and all who shared their resources with others.

But back to Question 1: What’s in the water that we don’t know about?

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2013 by Nerissa Young