Water Declared Main Issue Of 2014 Session

CHARLESTON – State legislators are on the same page in believing the water crisis that has continued to plague the southern portion of the state has become one of the main issues during the legislative session.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall; Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam; House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison; and House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, all spoke Thursday about the ongoing water issues in a nine-county area during the West Virginia Press Association’s 2014 Legislative Breakfast.

Armstead, Kessler and Miley agreed that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made the right decision Wednesday when he announced water quality sampling will be done in homes in the area affected by the Jan. 9 chemical spill in the Elk River. The spill contaminated West Virginia American Water’s system, which serves 300,000 people.

“We ought to go as far as we can and spend as much money as we need to get our citizens satisfied,” Hall said. “If our citizens stay up in arms about this and push back, it will affect tourism, it will affect business, it will affect this region. I will stand with the president and the governor and advocate whatever it takes to get it established that everything is safe here and the citizens are assured of that fact because if we can get over this bump, I believe there’s nothing but good for the future.”

Kessler said residents are not concerned if the water is safe in hydrants or intake points.

“People want to know if the water in their homes is safe,” he said. “They want to know when it comes in their homes and they turn on their spigot if it’s safe.”

It costs about $675 to do a water test in a residence, Kessler said. For probably less than $50,000 to $75,000, random testing could be done in a representative sample of homes, “and we would know definitively … whether those samples come back clean and if they come back clean … I think that would go a long way toward reducing the public anxiety and level of mistrust that the water’s safe.”

Hall said he recently viewed a presentation by Michigan tourism officials about that state’s image campaign, “Pure Michigan.” He said it will take up to three years for West Virginia to overcome the negative image created by the water disaster.

“The economic development office tells me you can’t even quantify the millions of dollars of negative that’s happened around the country,” he said. “We probably ought to begin to look at what some other states have done with this type of advertising. … The tourism industry is telling me that we’ve had these trade-off sort of grants for individual business. They’re willing to give that up in order to promote the entire state without promoting an individual business. That’s not a partisan issue. That’s just West Virginia.”