Check Existing Chemical Rules

It may have been appropriate for West Virginia legislators to shoot first and ask questions later in the wake of a disastrous chemical spill in Kanawha County. At Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s behest, they are debating new regulations for chemical storage facilities.

Now, however, it is time to ask questions.

After a leaky tank at the Freedom Industries facility spilled thousands of gallons of a hazardous chemical into the Elk River, about 300,000 people were advised not to drink water from their taps. Some required hospital treatment.

Mountain State residents and others wondered how the disaster could have occurred. Were there no safety requirements for chemical storage? Was the tank farm not being inspected regularly?

The answer to the latter question was a disturbing no. State Department of Environmental Protection inspectors had not visited the Freedom Industries facility since 1991.

At first, it seemed that companies storing large quantities of chemicals had slipped through a regulatory crack. Though many states have strict requirements for such companies, it appeared West Virginia did not.

In asking for new rules, Tomblin told reporters the industry was “unregulated.” But that may not be the case.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said it was more appropriate to refer to chemical storage facilities as “under-regulated.”

In fact, there are some rules on the books. Clearly, they need to be bolstered.

But legislators should be looking into whether existing rules were being enforced. As state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, noted, “All the rules on the books won’t work if there isn’t adequate enforcement.”

Huffman and others in his agency should be asking whether the Freedom Industries spill could have been avoided, had existing rules been enforced. Legislators should hold hearings on the matter. West Virginians need to know if the DEP was not using all the tools at its disposal to keep us safe from chemical spills.