The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


February 20, 2014

Disaster response

As Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin weighs a decision on whether to completely lift the state of emergency declared after the Jan. 9 chemical spill that so deeply disrupted the lives of West Virginians, other state leaders are looking ahead to the next disaster.

Tomblin, rightly so, has made it his mission to get the state through the spill and its after-effects as quickly as possible. We think his leadership during the crisis has been on-target given the broad geographical area affected, the unknown chemicals and their persistence in the water supply.

“We’re looking forward at the state of recovery right now,” Tomblin wrote in a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The governor, like residents and the medical community in West Virginia, has been frustrated by how little is known about the chemicals that leaked into the Elk River from a storage tank. Primarily, just what are their effects on humans? And in what concentrations? Are there long-term health problems that await people who used the water to drink or bathe?

The governor has requested more toxicology studies on the effects of crude MCHM and PPH. He has requested the CDC analyze health charts of people admitted to emergency rooms to see if there are links to the chemicals that leaked into the water system.

In our view, the governor has shown the proper restraint in focusing his efforts on dealing with the problems the spill created instead of wasting his time looking for targets to blame. There are certainly enough to go around.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, also is on the right path.

Unger says his hope is that the Legislature’s response to the spill will be to determine how it happened, what went wrong in dealing with it and how to prevent or minimize a similar disaster.

He has introduced a set of bills that he says amount to a step-by-step “playbook” to deal with any future crisis down the road — or down the river.

His latest bill would create a fund that could be tapped by state residents affected by the chemical spill to be reimbursed for the cost of new water pipes or new water heaters. This, he says, would more quickly resolve claims than by filing lawsuits. Residents, once they tapped the new fund, would not be able to participate in any future lawsuit to collect additional funds for replacing pipes or water heaters.

The bill, The Elk River Spill Victims’ Compensation Act of 2014, is now before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources.

We think it deserves a close look and a quick passage, if no major problems arise. We think West Virginians would benefit by a quick reimbursement that might eliminate years of legal fights.

Several weeks ago, we said it was our hope that lawmakers and other state officials wouldn’t overreact to the crisis, and rush though legislation that may or may not appropriately address immediate or future needs.

The response to that plea has been haphazard in the Legislature, but we think leaders like Tomblin, Unger and others are hitting the mark we suggested then.

As the spill crisis ebbs away on the Ohio River and the tide of time, we are well-positioned to begin to plan for the next disaster. One that we all know now is not just “if,” but “when.”

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