Rethink Policies On Chemicals

West Virginians worried about how hazardous chemicals are processed and stored got a second shock this week, even as many people in and near Kanawha County were still being told not to drink water out of their taps.

Last week chemicals that leaked from a Freedom Industries storage tank beside the Elk River tainted water supplies on which about 300,000 people rely. State officials instructed the company to remove chemicals from that site.

Freedom Industries workers took the chemicals to another storage site in nearby Nitro. But on Monday, state inspectors found problems there. A wall meant to contain chemicals if they leak from containers had holes in it. So did the building’s wall, which was meant to serve as a secondary containment dike.

At least government inspectors found problems at the Nitro site quickly. The Elk River storage facility had not even been inspected in many years.

A disturbing question about the Monday report is why Freedom Industries officials thought they could use the Nitro site for backup storage. Were they hoping state inspectors would not notice problems there? Or did the company’s personnel not realize that, in effect, they were transferring dangerous chemicals from the frying pan into the fire?

Neither potential answer is reassuring. This week’s fiasco on top of a disaster is one more reason for state and federal governments to rethink policies regarding hazardous substances.