Sustained Outrage

After action: Learning from W.Va.’s water crisis

Coal Water Pollution

In a lot of ways, the “After Action Review” made public last week by the Tomblin administration was an amazing document.  Click here to read the whole thing or here to download the main body summary of the findings.

Writing in our news story about the report, I called it the state’s “most frank assessment” to date of government’s performance in responding to the Freedom Industries chemical leak and the water crisis that followed. Among the admissions:

— The state “struggled at times” to effectively communicate information to the public through the news media. News conferences occurred with little notice, and messages were “lost amid confusing or ambiguous statements.” The report noted that “scientific information ought to be conveyed in an easily understandable manner.”

Earl Ray Tomblin— Government officials “should have visited individuals and businesses in the affected area to help restore calm and exhibit empathy.”

— Recalling an industry-only “stakeholders” meeting that was exposed by The Charleston Gazette, the report said that, “In preparing the initial draft of the Aboveground Storage Tank Act, state officials should have solicited feedback from all affected parties, including environmentalists, instead of only vetting proposals with business and industry representatives.”

Of course, some of these things are about communications and public relations, and others are about process.  In some other ways, the report was not quite as honest or at least it appeared to be still trying to put the best possible spin on this. For example, as I wrote in our news story:

… The report said that “with the abundance of chemical and manufacturing facilities in the Kanawha Valley,” many of them near “critical waterways,” a more efficient way of managing required disclosure forms about toxic chemical inventories at those operations should be implemented.

The report asserts that, while the state had established a “comprehensive statutory framework” in 1984 to regulate underground chemical storage tanks, aboveground tanks were not regulated “under an applicable federal or state permit” and tanks like the MCHM tanks at Freedom Industries “escaped government oversight.”

The report said that the new storage tank law “will help address these shortcomings, will increase public safety significantly, and will help protect the environment.”

The truth is, state and local officials were given information that showed Freedom was storing these chemicals just upstream from the region’s drinking water intake. But nobody — including members of the local media, like me — bothered to look at or use this information in any meaningful way (see here and here). So while it’s certainly true that officials need “a more efficient way of managing” chemical inventory disclosures, it’s also quite an understatement about the failure to use available tools to prevent or respond to a disaster.

And the truth is that the Freedom site wasn’t “not regulated”, but — as DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has explained previously — they were “underregulated.”  And in fact, federal authorities, in charging Freedom officials with Clean Water Act crimes, have said that the company’s failure to comply with a DEP-issued permit was a “proximate cause” of the MCHM spill. It was DEP’s job to enforce that permit, to make sure Freedom complied.

Under much pressure from citizens, West Virginia leaders did pass a strong bill in response to the Freedom incident. But it remains to be seen if that bill will stand, or fall victim to industry efforts to gut its provisions. The governor’s “After Action Review,” though, ignores the politics that can lead to something like Freedom Industries being “underregulated” in the first place.

And while the report concedes finally that the “flushing” procedures residents were advised to use to clear MCHM from their home plumbing systems “were not well vetted,” it skips over the ultimate result of that failure: People going to the hospital because of adverse reactions during the flushing process.

But the part of the report that I keep coming back to is this:

One of the ongoing and frustrating issues — both for the general public and state officials — was the question of when the water was considered ‘safe.’ The public wanted assurances, not personal views or opinions, although the questions continued to be asked of officials not in a position to make the safety determination. Adding to frustration and confusion was the fact that the CDC officials — those with the best information and scientific background — refused to publicly speak in terms of “safety” even after the “Do Not Use ” order was lifted. As this incident was unprecedented in West Virginia, better communication from those at the national level (CDC, EPA, NIH) would have been extremely helpful. In retrospect, state officials facing those questions should have made clear that while they understood the concerns of citizens, answers regarding water safety should come from scientists, not lay persons.

It’s that part about the public wanting “assurances” that bothered me.

Certainly, it’s true that federal agencies like the CDC and the EPA didn’t help matters when, in the midst of a water crisis affecting 300,000 American citizens, they were just plain difficult to deal with.  But are we really supposed to buy this passing of the buck to the feds — the officials “with the best information and scientific background” — from a state government that refuses to believe what EPA has to say about issues like climate change and water pollution?

More importantly, the problem wasn’t that state officials — qualified or not — were not giving residents “assurances” about the safety of their water. State officials were doing their best to insist that the water was perfectly safe.  But in doing so,  those officials were saying just plain silly things like trying to illustrate that a part per billion is really tiny (so how could it really hurt you?) or that, gosh, lots of things are dangerous and you could go outside today and get hit by a bus.  Top state officials — with little information or science to back up their comments — were also telling the public that if they flushed out their home plumbing and drank the water and still didn’t feel well, it was probably just the flu or a sunburn.

And theoretically, one of the people making these sorts of silly statements was supposed to be an expert in public health. But surely we all won’t soon forget what then-Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Letitia Tierney said during a congressional field hearing when she was asked of the local water was safe:

That is, in a way, a difficult thing to say, because everybody has a different definition of ‘‘safe.’’ As I used the example before, some people think it is safe to jump off the bridge on Bridge Day. I don’t personally think that is safe. So everybody has a different definition.

As Gazette editorial page editor Dawn Miller wrote in a column last March, “people aren’t stupid.” Residents saw through all this nonsense, to the point that no amount of “assurances” from state officials would have really done much good. What was needed — and what will be needed if this happens again, is not just reassurances, especially in the form of silly stuff about getting hit by buses or jumping of bridges. The public will need facts, data and science, and above all  public health officials who are ready and willing to admit what they don’t know.

In the midst of the water crisis, Governor Tomblin said this in response to a question from me about how he was going to win back public confidence in his government:

It’s your decision. If you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking with this water, then use bottled water.

That line about it being “your decision” was probably the best thing the governor said during the entire crisis. It is up to individuals to make those decisions, for themselves and their families. But it’s up to government officials to be sure residents have all the available information they need to make those decisions.