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Ideas on how to avoid another water crisis

THE movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark" ends with a worker placing the boarded up Ark of the Covenant in a warehouse with thousands of similar boxes.

The same thing happened to the Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program that the Chemical Safety Board recommended state and local officials adopt in the wake of industrial accidents killing three chemical workers in 2008. Officials filed it and went on with life.

State and local leaders ignored the advice of experts.

Had public officials listened, Freedom Industries would have had to do more than simply tell the state that it was storing thousands of gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol and other chemicals; the company also would have had to have an emergency plan in case of a leak or other calamity.

Not only that, but state and county emergency planners would have had to review the plan to make sure it made sense.

Instead, the company filed some paperwork that the bureaucrats filed away someplace in the bowels of state government to give the appearance of concern about safety. Eleven months later, more than 300,000 West Virginians were lining up at the high school for a case of bottled water like Sudanese refugees.

Obviously, Freedom Industries officials earned the most blame. The company acquired this facility sometime after 2009. Did company officials and their attorneys do due diligence in assessing the property? Was a professional engineer involved? Did no one notice the danger?

But there is plenty of blame left over for others in this massive screw up.

Legislators need to ask West Virginia American Water Co. and state officials three questions:

n Why did no one in state or county government notice that a set of old storage tanks holding various chemicals is located a mile upstream from the intake of the water company?

n Why didn't water company officials notice the same thing?

n Why didn't the state shut down Freedom Industries immediately and send in haz mat teams to stop the leak and clean up the mess?

This was an incident, a leak. The Kanawha Valley has had thousands of leaks that leave a bad smell but do not cause this damage.

This incident became a problem when the 4-methylcyclohexane methanol slipped through the filters at the water treatment facility. Losing the water supply for 300,000 people — one in six West Virginians — was terrible.

The response from emergency crews was excellent. Bravo to those volunteers who distributed water. Bravo also to the air quality team at the Department of Environmental Protection who detected the stuff and the source.

But this was a man-made disaster and avoidable. Legislators and other state officials should take three steps:

n Make water companies check for potential dangers.

n Have a hazardous material team at the ready. If we can send in the moonsuits every time we find someone cooking meth in the kitchen, surely we can send in people to work with plant officials when there is a bad leak.

n Do whatever the Chemical Safety Board said in 2011 and listen closely to what the board recommends after its investigation this time. Board members are the experts.

As for chemical and other companies, if you don't want more rules, act responsibly. Business groups need to police their own.

Maybe two parts per million of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol in the water is safe. After all, there was no great fish die-off. But why should we risk our health to find out?

This isn't "The Raiders of the Lost Ark" or some other swashbuckling movie; this is real life. Let us learn.

Surber's email is


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