Tomblin, lawmakers deserve credit

West Virginia legislators deserve enormous credit for the way they handled a disaster dumped on their plates Jan. 9, just as they were preparing for their annual 60-day regular session. It would have been easy for them to have failed or, at least, to have put off a day of reckoning on the issue.

But lawmakers, disturbed like the rest of us at what happened Jan. 9 when thousands of gallons of a hazardous chemical leaked into the Elk River at Charleston, accomplished much in just a few weeks.

Their goal was to prevent another disaster like the one at Charleston, which affected water supplies for about 300,000 people. Did legislators accomplish that?

It is impossible to say. Another major spill could occur tomorrow. If so, however, it will not be because legislators did not do their best to pass a safeguards bill.

That said, the measure approved Saturday, on the last day of the legislative session, is far from perfect. Most lawmakers probably would agree on that.

Consider the magnitude of what the bill aims to accomplish: Just a few days before legislators agreed on a bill, the Department of Environmental Protection reported it had found about 1,600 large chemical storage tanks near sources of water used for public consumption. Ensuring all of them meet safety regulations will be a daunting task.

The bill approved after much debate and many amendments contains three basic requirements. First, standards for storage tank safety are set. Second, state inspections of the tanks are mandated. And third, public water systems must improve provisions to protect people against contaminants in their water.

During the next year or so, “stakeholders” – including the public, industry, water system officials and the DEP – probably will suggest improvements to the bill. Lawmakers should consider them at their next regular session.

In the meantime, however, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, shifting funding in the budget, if necessary, should ensure the DEP has adequate personnel to enforce the new law. All the rules in the world will be of no use unless they are enforced.