West Virginia officials blame lack of regulation, info for water crisis

A month after a chemical spill in West Virginia left hundreds of thousands without water for days, state officials told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday that new legislation is needed to regulate storage facilities and improve the flow of vital public health information from government agencies to affected residents.

   "Lack of information has been our greatest challenge in West Virginia," said Natalie Tennant, West Virginia's Democratic secretary of state, who noted that residents simply don't trust public health officials any more after they received mixed messages in the immediate wake of the chemical spill.

The contamination knocked out the water supply for about 300,000 people near Charleston, W.Va., last month. Residents were advised not to drink, cook, bathe or wash clothes with the tap water for about 10 days.

The ban was eventually lifted, slowly, and on a county-by-county basis. That means people in some areas were told it was safe to drink the water while others were warned to strictly stay away.  Furthermore, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention warned pregnant women against drinking from the tap. Tennant said this confusion is still hurting West Virginia businesses and homeowners.

"Our confidence has been shattered," Tennant told the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife.

Randy Huffman, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said state officials struggled to tell the public that they did not immediately have all the answers: "It was very frustrating to try to explain ... what you don't know," he said. "They want to know what you know."

Other officials and experts who testified criticized the lack of regulation at the chemical storage plant. The building had not gone through a full-scale inspection by state officials since 1991, although inspectors responded twice since 2010 to complaints originating from the storage site.

"It's abundantly clear that we would not be here today had the storage facility at the heart of this spill provided adequate secondary containment, which would have prevented the chemical from reaching the Elk River," said Brent Fewell, vice president of environmental compliance for United Water, a water service company that provides drinking water and waste water to more than 7 million Americans.

The environmental crisis began Jan. 9 when about 7,000 gallons of a chemical used to wash coal made its way into the Elk River. The chemical originated from a facility owned by Freedom Industries, a coal mining company that has since declared bankruptcy. The firm is $6 million in debt and has filed for bankruptcy, possibly in an attempt to skirt some financial responsibility for the spill.

"We must be vigilant to ensure that these cleanup costs are met by the company - corporate shell games should not be able to avoid responsibility," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., whose colleagues have introduced bills that would tighten regulations to make corporations pay for environmental disasters.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, didn't hold back in her criticism of Freedom Industries: "They are cowards," she said, and they committed a "violation of basic human decency" by acting as a "rogue operator" and putting American lives at risk.

Earlier in the hearing, the panel heard from members of Congress who represent West Virginia. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin called the water crisis "unconscionable" and Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito said it was "absolutely unacceptable" for the company to drag its feet after the spill.

Manchin, Boxer and Sen. Nelson Rockefeller, D-W.Va, introduced a bill after that would increase state oversight of above-ground chemical storage facilities like the one implicated in last month's spill.