Answers elusive in chemical spill

Many states have regulations intended to prevent chemical spills such as the one that affected drinking water for about 300,000 West Virginians last month. Pennsylvania, for example, has strict requirements for chemical storage and inspections to ensure the rules are followed.

How was it that no one noticed a huge storage tank along the Elk River at Charleston had sprung a leak, then? And why was a faulty containment system not spotted and repaired before it was too late?

West Virginia legislators are in the process of enacting new rules on chemical storage and government inspections. But as we have recommended, they also should be asking whether existing rules could have prevented the disaster – had they been enforced.

It appears Mountain State residents are going to get an answer to that question, whether lawmakers delve into it or not.

Last week, two organizations filed an emergency petition with the state Supreme Court, accusing two state agencies of “collective dereliction of their duties” in not preventing the spill and resulting contamination of the Elk River. The Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health and Human Services are targeted by the petition, filed by Mountain State Justice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates. The action was taken on behalf of two residents of the affected area and two non-profit organizations.

A variety of allegations are made in the petition. Some of them involve the agencies’ response to the spill.

More important is why it occurred in the first place.

Incredible as it may seem more than a month after the chemical spill, West Virginians still have not been told what regulations, if any, were in place to prevent such accidents – or why, if rules were already on the books, they were not enforced.

Obviously, if a regulatory mechanism to prevent chemical spills existed, it failed West Virginians badly. If that was the case, we have no reason for confidence any new laws enacted by the Legislature will protect our water supplies. Answers to the questions posed in the petition are needed, then, and soon.