Investigations by the press into a disastrous chemical spill in Kanawha County keep turning up alarming revelations about what appears to be a near-total failure of government to safeguard public drinking water supplies from a serious threat.
Unless that changes, Ohio Valley residents will have no reason to accept claims that industrial operations involving chemicals pose no hazard.
Such pledges have been made about the GreenHunter Water facility in Wheeling. It treats wastewater from gas and oil drilling operations. GreenHunter officials hope to expand their operation to ship some of the wastewater via barges on the Ohio River.
Among concerns cited by opponents of the GreenHunter facility is that it is located near the Wheeling water treatment plant. What if wastewater from the facility leaks into the river?
On Jan. 9, area residents learned just what can happen in such a situation. A tank at the Freedom Industries facility in Charleston leaked thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical into the Elk River. Water is drawn from that stream, treated and distributed to about 300,000 people in and near Kanawha County.
A few people were sickened and all served by that water system were advised not to drink, cook with, bathe in or wash clothes in tap water.
It was learned the Freedom Industries facility had not been inspected by state or federal agencies in many years. Press inquiries disclosed neither state nor federal environmental protection agencies are doing a very good job of monitoring industrial facilities where contamination of water supplies could occur.
Last week, as explained in a story on page one of today's newspaper, our reporter learned no one seems certain how safety at the GreenHunter facility would be monitored.
That changes everything. With all due respect to GreenHunter, the company's intentions seem good - but until Jan. 9, the public had been given no reason to worry about Freedom Industries, either.
State and federal officials need to rectify the situation - immediately. If that requires sending inspectors out on boats to cruise every waterway along which chemicals are stored, so be it.
The next chemical spill - and, after Jan. 9, there is every reason to believe there will be a next time - may involve a deadly substance. Government has let the public down badly on this one. West Virginia state legislators and members of the U.S. Congress simply must demand environmental protection agencies do better to protect our drinking water. It is only by the grace of God that the Kanawha County spill's victims were merely sickened - and not killed.