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Support Grows for Broad Water Protection, But Legislation is Narrow

PHOTO: The Freedom Chemical spill has motivated many in West Virginia to demand broad improvements in water quality and safety protections. Photo credit: Dan Heyman.
PHOTO: The Freedom Chemical spill has motivated many in West Virginia to demand broad improvements in water quality and safety protections. Photo credit: Dan Heyman.
January 24, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Freedom chemical spill has sparked a wave of demands for major improvements in clean water protections, but so far West Virginia lawmakers are crafting a narrow response.

They're discussing a bill to tighten the regulation of above ground storage tanks, but many of their constituents want much wider reforms.

Cindy Harrah-Cox of South Charleston is the wife of a retired coal miner and mother of a woman made sick by the spill.

She says legislators have been too afraid of losing coal and chemical employment.

"We've been held hostages by these jobs,” she stresses. “We're afraid of these big companies pulling out.

“But at what cost? Dying young? The air and water is killing us. So, is it worth all that?"

Harrah-Cox, like many attending a clean water vigil at the statehouse this week, said the spill had made her angry and afraid.

Several organizations were registering new voters at the event.

The Freedom spill is the third major chemical incident in the Kanawha Valley in five years, according to Maya Nye, spokeswoman for People Concerned About Chemical Safety.

Nye says hundreds of chemicals – like those that ended up in the Elk River – are sold without detailed studies of their safety.

She says tightening the rules on storage tanks might have prevented the Freedom spill, but it wouldn't be enough to protect residents from the many pollutants that slip through the loopholes.

"If you want a quick fix, sure, we can just look at the above-ground storage tanks,” she says. “But we need to take a comprehensive look of chemical safety – not just in this valley, not just in this state, but across the country."

Critics of Freedom Industries have described the company as renegades and say the rest of the industry should not be punished for one company cutting corners.

But Nye says the state doesn't enforce the rules now on the books, and doesn't take enough input from citizens.

She says that empowers bad actors.

"Our state is so dependent on chemicals, is so dependent on coal, that it seems like it's easy for our government to kind of turn a blind eye sometimes, when it's the industry that feeds us,” she maintains. “And I understand that."

But she calls it unwise in the long term.



Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV