Being Prepared In West Virginia

West Virginia’s Bureau of Public Health had no epidemiologists on staff specifically trained to deal with chemical and natural disasters, when a leaky tank sent crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol into the Elk River in Charleston at the beginning of this year, according to a report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such an omission is particularly disturbing when one considers the Bureau of Public Health is seated smack in the middle of a region around Charleston that has earned the nickname “Chemical Valley.”

For many years before the Jan. 9 spill, federal funding in the form of both Homeland Security grants and federal “stimulus” funding was poured into West Virginia with apparently very little regard to what was done with those taxpayer dollars. So, when Homeland Security grants went to contractors who dutifully conducted “awareness-level” training for everyone from university administrators to local fire departments, no one bothered to take the next logical step. Once communities were aware of potential disasters and began to improve communication and formulate plans, there was no guidance in place to handle details such as having someone available who understands how to handle chemical disasters.

Instead, “stimulus” money was spent on courses such as Improvised Explosive Device Response on Mass Transit and Passenger Rail Systems – in West Virginia – or swapping out $40 Internet routers for some that cost $22,400.

So, according to the CDC, the response to a chemical leak that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 people, for many days, was led by the bureau’s experts in infectious disease.

It is a classic case of having thrown buckets of money in response to a problem without having any real idea how to use that funding to resolve or prevent future problems.

State officials already have taken steps to ensure more expertise is available if another chemical spill occurs. They also ought to be looking at preparedness for other types of emergencies that may not involve chemical spills.