SCHOOLS closed? Businesses shuttered? More than 300,000 people unable to bathe or wash their clothes, let alone cook or drink water from their taps? Not a pleasant situation. Many are already calling for legislative action.
But any action lawmakers or regulators take must be effective. Current regulations did not stop a leak of thousands of gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol from contaminating the Elk River and the water supply for roughly one-sixth of the state's population.
Last February, Freedom Industries filed the proper paperwork in which it informed state officials that it had this chemical stored along the Elk River 1.5 miles upstream from the West Virginia American Water Co. treatment facility. State and local emergency officials received the information, yet no one devised or discussed a plan for handling a potential spill from the chemical storage site.
In an apparent exercise in futility, every year companies file similar paperwork with government regulatory bodies that apparently nobody looks at.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, have promised action.
Model legislation is readily available. In September 2011, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended a program that will help the Kanawha Valley prevent hazardous chemical accidents. The recommendation came after an exhaustive investigation of two industrial accidents killed three chemical workers in 2008.
The board based its Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program on a chemical safety law in Contra Costa County, Calif.
That law requires companies to submit safety plans and more importantly, the law requires the government to regularly audit the plans. In short, the companies would not submit paperwork simply to fill somebody's desk drawer.
The Chemical Safety Board is the expert when it comes to protecting the public from hazardous materials. State officials should listen to them very carefully.
The model for this board is the National Transportation Safety Board, which over the years has investigated airline crashes and the like and has helped make travel in America safer.
The Chemical Safety Board is investigating this man-made water crisis. But lawmakers do not have to wait for that investigation to conclude to implement what the board recommended last time.
That's a good way of preventing a next time of schools closed, businesses shuttered and more than 300,000 people without water.