West Virginia Governor Earl Tomblin announced on Monday that the ban on using tap water has been lifted for some areas affected by a chemical spill that tainted the area's water supply. But no one has yet answered other questions about the spill, like why chemical plant that caused the leak hasn't been inspected by regulators since 1991.
Relief is slowly but surely coming for the roughly 300,000 people told not to drink or wash themselves since last Thursday, after 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used to clean coal, leaked into the Elk River. Nine surrounding counties, including the capitol city of Charleston were affected by the water ban. Homes, schools and businesses were left dry for about five days. Thankfully, there was no great medical emergency; only 10 people were hospitalized because of the spill and local officials were quick to act on the distribution of clean water. Officials now believe the clean-up is nearly complete. "The numbers we have look good," Tomblin told reporters.
The ban will be lifted in a "strict, methodical manner to help ensure the water system is not overwhelmed by excessive demand, which could cause more water quality and service issues," the Associated Press reports, which will solve the very short-term problem of an infected water supply. But greater issues remain, like the state's historically poor environmental protection policies.
The Wall Street Journal outlined how the source of the chemical spill, a storage facility owned by Freedom Industries Inc., evaded any sort of state or local oversight for years, thanks to an overly complicated system that allowed the factory to fall between regulations. "Before last week's spill, a state regulator said environmental inspectors hadn't visited the site since 1991," the Journal said. Tomblin conceded Saturday the spill may inspire some sort of environmental regulation reform.
Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, has mostly avoided answer his own questions, despite some heroic pestering by local reporter Kallie Cart.
As The Guardian's Ana Marie Cox explained Monday morning, the chemical spill in West Virginia should be a huge story — bigger than Chris Christie's "Bridgegazi," she thinks — because it highlights just how slack the state has been on environmental protection, especially the quality of tap water, for over 100 years:
There's no compelling narrative, no unfolding drama, no whodunit to solve, and catastrophic environmental destruction in West Virginia, on an even larger scale than the nine counties affected by the spill, is old news. The state harvested its entire 10m acres of virgin forest between 1870 and 1920. In the past 50 years, mountaintop-removal mining has made over 300,000 acres of unfit for economically productive use, and the clean water supply has been systematically reduced by 20% in the last 25.
Hopefully, Tomblin's thoughts on reform weren't simply an offer to calm the panic during a moment of crisis and something good might actually come out of this disaster.