This is a great Op-Ed by Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
If you are like many West Virginians you remember where you were when you first heard of the Elk River chemical leak last January 9. Maybe you can still see it clearly: You were at work or starting a load of laundry or picking up your child at daycare. A lot has changed since then.
We have new voices for clean water. A year later, thanks to those new voices, we have a strong law designed to protect drinking water sources and regulate aboveground storage tanks. The law passed unanimously; for this, every senator and delegate should be commended.
There has been visible change in the executive branch. A year ago when Governor Tomblin called in water stakeholders for a meeting, the guest list included only industry. More recently, when the Governor called a similar meeting, a range of community interests were invited to the table. And last summer, the Governor stood up for the timetable of reforms by refusing to call a special session.
For his part, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman took a lot of heat from the public during the crisis. Since then he has earned praise from many of his critics. He has faced down attempts to gut the law through the rulemaking process; and has stood up for reasonable regulation and fair enforcement of above-ground tanks.
A year ago industry put up only token opposition to water protection laws. Now as the Legislature convenes, they are gathered in full force seeking to not only undo the progress that was made but eliminate decades-standing policies that protect drinking water sources. Here, nothing has changed.
Consider this. The chemical leak became a crisis in part because there were no secondary intakes. A recommended remedy is to keep the Kanawha River, and most of our rivers across the state, clean as potential drinking water sources through what our state water quality standards call a Category A classification. But the West Virginia Manufacturers Association opposes it. They say keeping rivers clean is like mandating a 15 mph speed limit on every road — in case we might build a school there some day.
Their comment reveals their self-interest to pollute. By their logic, industry seeks a system of roads without speed limits, without rules, and without enforcement. It’s a road where, eventually, no place is safe for children, no entrepreneur of sound mind would invest in a new business, where recently minted college grads can’t imagine putting down roots. That’s the pre-January 9 status quo.
The status quo is an entitlement program for polluters, in which a few special interests believe their rights trump everyone else’s. It’s a license to foul our water or, at best, a permission slip to be excused from the rules the rest of us live by.
From the water crisis we learned that the narrow interests of energy and manufacturing do not represent all West Virginia businesses. Thousands of small businesses depend on clean water — for their business use and for the peace of mind of their customers.
Degrading our water is a dead end for attracting and keeping businesses and people in our state. No one wants to live or work where the water is toxic.
A year ago, thousands of West Virginians who had never before been political suddenly spoke up. They went to meetings, wrote letters, called their legislators and directly influenced change for the good.
A year later, many still are active. They are church leaders, business owners, parents — regular folks who want something better for West Virginia. They have shown that when people stand together and expect more of their government, politicians can be persuaded to do the right thing.
What do the people want? For starters, they want an honest method of accounting that recognizes when government allows industry to save pennies at the expense of clean water, the price is paid a thousand times over by the rest of us. It comes at the cost of our health, the cost of cleaning up careless corporations’ messes, the loss of prospective businesses and the continued drain of our young people who leave every year.
Right now, politicians, industry, and activists all share the same question: Will people stay involved?
Maintaining drinking water protections will depend on people showing up. The special interests who would dismantle our water protections know this. They know when the crisis has passed, and people go back to attending to their everyday lives — it’s easy to lose sight of what’s at stake. Out of sight, out of mind. We know from history, water protections will backslide when we’re not paying attention.
We are hopeful. That people will keep speaking up, that politicians and regulators will hear them, and that one day water will not be treated as a political issue, but as a moral one.
Angie Rosser is the executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition, a statewide non-profit organization working for drinkable, swimmable, fishable waters.