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FEMA won't reimburse spill costs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied a request from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to reimburse costs associated with responding to the chemical leak that continues to affect central West Virginia.

In an announcement, Tomblin provided a copy of the rejection letter and pledged to appeal the decision.

"Based on our review of all of the information available, it has been determined that the event was not of such severity and magnitude as to warrant grant assistance under this emergency declaration," wrote Elizabeth Zimmerman, a FEMA official, in the rejection letter sent Monday.

Tomblin's request, made Jan. 27, was for reimbursement of "emergency protective measures."

Emergency protective measures are actions taken before, during or after a crisis in order to prevent threats to public health and safety, according to the FEMA website.

They can also be measures that "eliminate or reduce an immediate threat of significant damage to improved public or private property through cost-effective measures," the website states.

Officials learned Jan. 9 that thousands of gallons of chemicals were leaking from faulty storage tank owned by Freedom Industries into the Elk River. By that evening, the chemicals had overwhelmed the local West Virginia American Water Co. treatment plant, leaving 300,000 West Virginians without usable tap water.

While the "do not use" advisory was lifted within two weeks of the spill, residents continue to distrust the water and facilities -- mostly schools -- continue to show signs of chemicals in the water.

Tomblin said he was "extremely disappointed" by the decision and personally contacted the head of FEMA to let him know he was concerned about the ruling.

"We are committed to providing the detail necessary to demonstrate the assistance needed by the public safety agencies that have provided support to citizens since this crisis struck more than one month ago," Tomblin said in the release.

Tomblin declared a state of emergency the night the spill was detected and requested aid from FEMA at the time. That request was granted, with FEMA providing more than 7 million liters of water and 130,000 meals, said FEMA spokesman Dan Watson in an email Wednesday.

"While the initial emergency declaration was approved and resources were provided to support the immediate response, it was determined that in this case certain costs associated with the response and recovery efforts were not beyond the response and recovery capabilities of state and local governments to necessitate additional federal assistance beyond the emergency declaration already provided," Watson said in the email.

U.S. Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va., Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also made statements calling on FEMA to reverse its decision.

In Kanawha County, County Commission President Kent Carper said FEMA's decision to not provide reimbursement was "disturbing," and said the county would encourage the governor and West Virginia's congressional delegation to appeal the decision.

"I think it is shameful when the federal government turns their back on a small state," Carper said.

Kanawha County's government alone is estimated to have accrued around $300,000 in costs related to the chemical leak and water distribution. About 80 percent of that amount is employee-related and the rest is attributed to equipment, operation of the Emergency Operations Center and other various expenses.

Carper said the county was aware of the possibility FEMA would not provide reimbursement, but began relief efforts anyway. He said the state is in the same situation.

"We knew we would be at risk," Carper said of the county spending money on relief efforts. "What choice did we have? Let people dehydrate?"

Carper said the county has about $135,000 in a budgeted emergency response fund and additional reserves in the county's rainy day fund. He said Kanawha County can handle the losses, but it will detract from other projects the county could undertake.

"It's $300,000 we could have used for a good purpose," he said. "We were the epicenter here and a tremendous burden fell on Kanawha County."

Residents of eight other counties also were affected by the chemical spill.

Carper said the decision by FEMA to not provide reimbursement to governments was "way beyond the failure to support the State of West Virginia in Sandy."

After Hurricane Sandy dumped several feet of snow on West Virginia in October 2012, FEMA provided reimbursement to state and local governments.

However, despite numerous roof and building collapses, FEMA declined to assist individuals in West Virginia, though it did provide individual support to residents in other states.

The state appealed that decision, which was not overturned.

In the case of the chemical leak, the state has 30 days to appeal the decision and has yet to announce how much it has spent on relief efforts related to the leak. FEMA did provide assistance during the "do not use" order, including arranging hundreds of tractor-trailers of bottled water and supplies. Most of those trailers came from a FEMA staging area near Cumberland, Md., and were parked at the McLaughlin West Virginia Air National Guard Base in Charleston.


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