The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 4, 2014

House committees hear concerns over clean water

CHARLESTON — The group of speakers at Monday’s public hearing on the chemical spill into the Elk River Jan. 9 had a lot of differences. Men with pony tails and men in business suits. Women in professions and stay-at-home moms. Old and young, they came from the most affluent parts of Charleston and the poorest sections of the region to speak to members of three House comittees. But nearly all 53 of their voices were united in one chorus.

Strengthen the laws concerning the state’s water resources.

Most of the speakers said Senate Bill 373, which is written to regulate above ground chemical storage tanks, is a start, but not enough when it comes to the state’s drinking water. Instead, they said, the state should adopt and enforce the Chemical Safety Board’s 2011 recommendations made after a chemical explosion killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute.

The West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club’s chair of Energy James Kotcon said legislators should listen to the people who advocate for clean water, not to industry, if it is clean water they want. The spill, he said, was neither a fluke nor an accident, but rather a “predictable result of our current regulatory structure.” Kotcon said he didn’t have much faith in SB 373’s ability to bolster those regulations.

“I do not believe one more narrowly crafted permit system on one more narrow segment of industry is going to correct those fundamental errors,” Kotcon said. The Sierra Club supports the CSB’s recommendations, which the director of that agency said two weeks ago could have prevented the chemical spill last month.

Amy Weintraub of West Virginia Free, a women’s health advocacy group, said SB 373 is a good start, but doesn’t go far enough, while David Coffee called it a “first step.”

Coffee asked that all the legislature’s actions concerning the chemical spill be taken by roll call vote.

“If you do not vote for us, we will not vote for you,” Coffee said. He suggested that the coal industry be made to pay for the costs of the spill.

Charleston’s Sheila McEntee said the chemical spill has been called “one of the largest environmental disasters of this century.”

McEntee said at first she would not use her water for anything, but now has relented because of time and necessity.

“I’ve washed my body and my belongings with a chemical used to wash coal,” McEntee said. “Will I suffer longterm health effects because of the gross negligence of others?

“Our trust has been shaken and it must be restored.”

A bamboo farmer who said he would grow hemp if it is made legal said the solution to the problem is clear to him.

Don Smith of the Greenview Group said the infrastructure must be replaced from the intake to the water lines to the plumbing in homes and businesses. Smith said the cost might be tremendous, but reminded the gathering of the cost of the war in Iraq.

“Just a few years ago we were dropping that kind of money out of planes over Baghdad,” he said. “Let’s start digging ditches.”

Scott Simonton, whose testimony before the Joint Committee on Water Resources last week was undermined by the Department of Health and Human Services, said the DHHR doesn’t have a basic understanding of what happens to chemicals when they break down.

Simonton said last week that MCHM breaks down into formaldehyde and that area residents are breathing it if they are using hot water. The DHHR said that the chemical had to be heated to 500 degrees Farenheit for it to break down into formaldehyde. Further, the West Virginia Record published a story that said Simonton was working for a law firm which is representing one of several plaintiffs in suits filed against Freedom Industries, the owner of the leaky storage tank.

He stood by his testimony Monday.

“Pure methanol (one of the chemicals in MCHM) converts to formaldehyde in the environment,” Simonton said. “I hope the DHHR applies the guidance the federal government already has in place.”

Twenty-six-year-old Rachel Huff, who moved here from Pennsylvania, said that although her parents have tried to convince her to come home, she wants to stay in her adopted state. But, she said, she understands their concern. Her concern, however, is what the spill does to young people who might want to live in West Virginia.

“We can’t have jobs without health,” she said. “We’re driving young people away.”

One man said the damage to the state’s economic future is done if the legislature doesn’t act to strengthen regulations.

“Nobody in a nine-county area is willing to drink their water,” he said. “Three hundred thousand people who will never believe that their water is not a cancer-causing agent.”

He said the state should diversify its economy so that it doesn’t rely on extractive industries alone.

Cole Cooper said that the result of the spill is that “normal isn’t good enough.”

“I have little confidence that this will lead to significant changes,” Cooper said. He called the spill a “watershed moment” when state residents realized they were not going “to take it anymore.”

“We are lacking in true leadership,” Cooper said, calling the regulatory agencies “inept at best, and corruptible at worst.”

Jesse Johnson, a Mountain Party candidate for governor, said people have little faith that things will change.

“We need protection,” Johnson said. He also called for baseline testing for all water resources. “We need to know going forward we have a chance for survival,” he said.

Rachelle Beckner, mother of two, said she came to the hearing to protect her children. She said that every night her daughters answer the question “What do we do?” by saying, “We do the right thing.”

Beckner called on legislators to answer the same way.

“Business is important in our state,” she said. “[This is] the single most important issue you can address. Strengthen the legislation. Show me and my girls you know how to do the right thing.”

Michael Pushkin said that he is not a scientist, but the CSB is made up of scientists. Pushkin urged legislators to enact the protections the CSB presribed.

“I’m tired of having to come together in a crisis,” Pushkin said. “I’d rather be smart and prevent the crisis.”

Small business owner Jennifer Burns, mother of four and grandmother of three, said her catering company was closed “by no fault of my own.”

“ And I continue to suffer the consequences of big industry’s inability to comply with the rules and regulations that they are supposed to comply with and their right to be negligent infringes on my right in business and to feed my family. The money that I make with my business is my milk money.

I am not like the coal industry.”

Burns said West Virginia has the opportunity to do the right thing, but noted that the room seemed to have few legislators in attendance by the time she spoke.

“I am extremely disappointed to look around and see all the empty chairs. Where is everybody? I am not going away,” Burns said.

The lone industry advocate, Chris Hamilton of the Business and Industry Council, said SB 373 would regulate independent above ground tanks and called it “quick and judicious work.”

— E-mail: ppritt@register-herald.com

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