By KEN WARD JR.
Three years after the Freedom Industries chemical spill and the Kanawha Valley water crisis that followed, citizen groups and environmental advocates on Monday said the state has made much progress but that continued work to protect West Virginia’s drinking water needs to remain a priority.
Representatives of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Advocates for a Safe Water System, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the West Virginia-Citizen Action Group gathered at the Capitol for a brief ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Jan. 9, 2014, spill that contaminated the Elk River drinking water supply that serves hundreds of thousands of people in Charleston and the surrounding region.
“We wanted to be here today to send a message that we still care, we’re still paying attention to the protection of our water,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the Rivers Coalition.
Rosser was joined at the event by Evan Hansen, a Rivers Coalition consultant and member of a state government commission studying drinking water safety efforts, and Paul Dalzell, a leader of the group Advocates for a Safe Water System. Also speaking at the event was Kevin Thompson, a lawyer for residents and businesses that sued West Virginia American Water Co. and Eastman Chemical, the maker of the chemical MCHM, over the water crisis.
Hansen discussed legislation passed after the spill to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks and to force public drinking water systems to plan for how they could prevent or respond to spills like the one at Freedom.
“We’ve made great strides in protecting our water,” Hansen said, “but there’s still work to be done.”
In particular, Hansen said it is important for public water systems to now work to implement the safety measures outlined in their new source-water protection plans. Also, Hansen highlighted recommendations in the latest annual report from the West Virginia Public Water System Supply Study Commission that call for water systems to be informed whenever the contents of upstream chemical storage tanks change and for improvements in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s spill reporting hotline.
Dalzell said Advocates for a Safe Water System continues to work on its top priority: A public takeover of West Virginia American’s private water supply system for the Kanwha Valley. Also, he noted, the group is taking part in the state Public Service Commission’s ongoing investigation of the spill. Public-comment hearings for that investigation are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Jan. 17 at PSC headquarters, on Brooks Street. The commission’s formal evidentiary hearing is scheduled to continue Jan. 24-26.
Thompson said lawyers are still working out the final details of a tentative settlement with West Virginia American and Eastman, which will pay up to $151 million to businesses and residents affected by the “do not use” order issued during the water crisis caused by the Freedom spill.
“This settlement covers everybody, whether they signed up with a lawyer or not,” Thompson said.
Details of how to file claims are among the details still being worked out in the case, which is before U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver Jr.
Various lobbyists and some state officials milled around in the Capitol’s Upper Rotunda, just above where the water crisis ceremony was taking place in the Lower Rotunda. Two members of the Legislature spoke briefly at the event.
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said, “Water is important to economic development. It’s not a partisan issue. We should all work together to protect this fundamental thing that we all need.”
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, noted that lawmakers did go back and weaken the above-ground storage tank legislation a year after the spill, and said citizens need to continue to pressure lawmakers to ensure the state’s water protection remains strong.
“It’s not perfect,” Fleischauer said of the new law. “We really moved forward, and then we moved back, and we need to make sure we move it forward again.”
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