Minutes Count During Disasters

Amid all the questions, murky details and recriminations about the Jan. 9 chemical spill in Charleston, one thing is becoming crystal clear:?Minutes count in reacting to such disasters.

Not long after 8 a.m. that day, people in the Charleston area began smelling a strange, licorice-like odor. It was coming from the water in both their taps and the nearby Elk River.

It was hours before effective action was taken to limit exposure to water tainted by a hazardous chemical, however.

At first, workers at the Freedom Industries facility where a leaking tank allowed the chemical to flow into the river did not take decisive action. Even after learning of the spill, officials at the local water company did not immediately close an intake valve drawing water from the river. They said they feared doing so would result in a dangerous lack of water for fire fighting and sanitation.

Finally, the tap was closed and people in the area were told they should not consume water from their taps.

Initially, there were few reports of people sickened by drinking the tainted water. Weeks later, the state reported 26 people had been admitted to hospitals and 553 others had been treated and released.

Now, however, new information based in part on reports from about 1,600 health care providers in Kanawha and Putnam counties makes it clear many more people suffered at least some ill-effects from the tainted water. Tens of thousands may have been affected.

Thank heaven the chemical responsible was not more toxic.

Important – perhaps critical – lessons have been and are being learned from the Jan. 9 chemical spill and its aftermath. More attention needs to be focused on timing.

How many of those sickened by the water would not have been affected had the water intake valve been closed sooner? How many would have been spared had the public been notified earlier? What was the effect of minutes, even hours, lost because Freedom Industries workers and officials did not act more decisively?

Obviously, a more expeditious reaction to the spill would have been better – though it needs to be emphasized water company and emergency officials did what they thought was best at the time. Still, the more that can be learned about whether they were right, the better. The next chemical spill may involve a deadly substance.