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Water Fight: Justice, Salango trade barbs over town water issues

Submitted photo Democratic candidate for governor Ben Salango, left, delivers bottled water Sunday to Gary, W.Va. Gov. Jim Justice, right, fishes for golden trout in 2019 near the historic grist mill on Glade Creek in Fayette County.

CHARLESTON — Summer typically brings out the water guns, but Gov. Jim Justice and Democratic candidate for governor Ben Salango are having a water fight of their own focused on a small town’s water problem and Justice’s companies’ clean water record.

The recent water outage in the city of Gary in McDowell County became the center of controversy this week after Salango, a member of the Kanawha County Commission and a businessman, traveled to the town over the weekend to deliver 300 gallons of bottled water.

“On Friday, I found out that Gary…didn’t have any water,” Salango posted on Twitter. “So, today I loaded up my truck and delivered 300 gallons of it, totaling 2,400 pounds.”

According to the Governor’s Office, the main water pump serving nearly 500 customers in Gary and the surrounding area stopped working last week with the backup pumps also not functioning. To fix it, the city required a custom-made main water pump. Salango criticized Justice for not making mention of the water crisis in Gary during his statewide briefings last week or Monday.

“It’s a shame this crisis has been going on for a week during a global health pandemic and it hasn’t gotten a single mention from our Governor,” Salango tweeted. “There are so many counties just like McDowell that have gone ignored by Jim Justice. That stops when I’m Governor.”

In a statement Tuesday, Justice pushed back on Salango’s claim that the situation in McDowell County was being ignored. Justice said he ordered the West Virginia National Guard and the Division of Emergency Management to assist the town. The division delivered last week a National Guard water trailer capable of holding 400 gallons of water to Gary City Hall.

On Tuesday, the state delivered a 5,500-gallon water tanker from the Division of Highways, additional water trailers from the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation that can store a combined 500 gallons, and three pallets of bottled water. Justice also instructed the Water Development Authority and the Public Service Commission to work with Gary city officials on long-term planning for the city’s water infrastructure needs.

“This is yet another example of how, when West Virginians are in need, we run to the fire with everyone and everything we’ve got,” Justice said. “Clean water is absolutely a necessity to life for all of us. Not only are we going to get the great people of Gary through this outage now, we’re also going to do everything in our power to make sure that water is something they never have to worry about again.”

Without naming him, Justice accused Salango of creating a “political hoopla” out of the Gary situation during the governor’s Monday coronavirus briefing.

“We had a political hoopla go on in the town of Gary,” Justice said. “We absolutely want to help them and if you’re in Gary and everything and we haven’t helped and everything, we’ll come and keep pouring it on until we make sure everything is in good shape.”

According to the Governor’s Office, more than $100 million has been spent since 2017 for county and municipality water and sewer infrastructure projects. But Salango criticized Justice and his companies for adding to water infrastructure issues in southern West Virginia by allegedly dumping polluted water in streams.

Senior U.S. District Judge David Faber granted some of a motion for summary judgment filed by four environmental groups against Justice-owned Bluestone Coal Corp. In the ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia released Monday, Faber ruled that Bluestone was liable for more than 3,000 violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

“Today’s ruling by the federal district court vindicates our contention that the coal mine owned by the governor’s family blatantly disobeyed clean water requirements and illegally discharged excess chemicals into West Virginia’s waterways,” said Karan Ireland, West Virginia Sierra Club’s senior campaign representative. “It’s now critical that the court ensure proper cleanup and penalty for the pollution discharged into our waterways.”

The environmental groups accused Bluestone of discharging selenium from their Red Fox Mine in McDowell County at amounts substantially above what federal regulations allow. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, selenium ends up in waterways from the washing of coal. Too much selenium in water is toxic to aquatic life.

“Jim Justice has been polluting our water for years and when West Virginians step up to help a town in need he calls it “political hoopla,’” Salango said in a statement. “Justice is dismissing the concerns of the people in McDowell who are suffering from this water crisis because he’s been one of the worst polluters in West Virginia.”

In May, Salango unveiled a plan for clean water protections in West Virginia. The plan includes holding companies accountable that violate state and federal clean water rules, improvements to water and sewer infrastructure, require transparency for water quality tests and reporting by the Department of Environmental Protection, create tax incentives for clean water projects, and build an emergency response plan and a stockpile of bottle water.

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