The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Editorials

January 19, 2014

Ongoing

The Elk River watershed chemical spill is apparently under control, and residents of nine counties have resumed using their taps to drink, cook, shower and bathe.

We’ve commented already about how well West Virginians handled the water crisis, and we believe the quick and decisive action of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other officials went far in preventing panic if not alleviating the understandable anxiety of the 300,000 or so state residents affected by the water outage.

But while the immediate threat of the spill of Crude MCHM is now past, the fallout from the chemical spill is far from over.

On Friday, the company blamed for the leakage from a storage tank next to the Elk River filed for bankruptcy. Freedom Industries Inc. already was facing more than 30 lawsuits filed over the Jan. 9 spill, and is the focus of both federal and state investigations into just what went wrong.

Some of the lawsuits also target West Virginia American Water Co. and Eastman Chemical, the producer of the coal-cleaning substance that leaked into the river.

The suits will play out, potentially for years, in the court system.

Not surprisingly, the spill has pushed itself to the forefront of the current 60-day legislative session in Charleston.

Tomblin announced Friday that he would push for regulation of above-ground storage tanks, as well as contingency plans for water companies in the event of a future crisis.

As we reported in The Register-Herald, state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, has introduced legislation mandating new tank storage and inspection regulations in Senate Bill 373.

At the federal level, Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin have introduced a bill “requiring state inspections of above-ground chemical storage facilities, letting states recoup costs for emergency responses and setting industry standards for emergency responses,” according to The Associated Press.

There are still concerns about the long-term effects of the chemical on health among residents of the nine counties involved in the spill. Little is known about the chemical that spilled, or whether trace amounts will remain in water storage tanks, and what that could mean to public health in the area affected.

Those are significant worries for all of us in the state.

We’re not going to judge the quick reaction from lawmakers, state or federal, or question their motives. Like us, we’re sure they are just as shaken by how quickly the spill spread, and how many West Virginians’ lives were seriously disrupted.

But we think it prudent that, first, the water system is made safe.

Following that, we think the investigative process that has been undertaken by state and federal regulators should be allowed time to determine not just what caused the spill, but how to prevent another one.

We need to know what regulations were already in place, and whether they failed or were not followed properly before new laws or regulations are imposed.

There will be time in the future to decide on whether current laws and regulations were insufficient, and new ones are needed.

Now is the time to give thanks that the disaster was not worse.

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