Preventing New Chemical Spills

Throughout West Virginia are located thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of storage tanks containing liquids that could, if released, contaminate water supplies. State legislators received a wakeup call about them earlier this year, when a chemical called MCHM leaked into the Elk River at Charleston.

That resulted in a new state law giving the Department of Environmental Protection power to regulate many chemical storage tanks. But the first step in doing so – locating them all – will be difficult.

Owners of tanks holding more than 1,300 gallons of liquid and in place more than 60 days must register them with the DEP by Oct. 1. Though the agency has taken some steps to learn about major storage facilities, officials remain in ignorance of most of them. DEP Chief Communications Officer Kelley Gillenwater admitted the number of tanks is not known. “We’re estimating it to be in the thousands, possibly in the tens of thousands.”

Many owners of chemical storage tanks will act quickly and honestly to inform the DEP and register their facilities. But those people, by definition, are not the ones about whom state officials need to worry.

No doubt a few bad apples will attempt to evade registration, in large measure because they worry their tanks may not meet DEP safety requirements.

DEP officials are permitted to levy fines against those who fail to comply with the registration order. In extreme cases, their facilities can be shut down.

Of course, some leeway should be granted to those who simply are not aware of the requirement or may err in good-faith attempts to comply. But scofflaws – who, again, probably present the greatest risk of failing to use adequate safety procedures – should be taken to task quickly and severely. The DEP should not hesitate to fine them and, if situations warrant, shut them down.

It would be nice to believe the Elk River disaster earlier this year was a once-in-a-million event. But that simply is not realistic. DEP officials should handle enforcement accordingly.