Sustained Outrage

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As residents of Marshall and Wetzel counties fled or took shelter to protect themselves from a chlorine cloud that spewed into the air Saturday from the Axiall Corp. chemical plant at Natrium, it was impossible not to remember a long-ago and never-implemented recommendation from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that West Virginia officials do more to try to ensure public safety from such incidents.

It was eight years ago Sunday that the fatal explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant out in Institute prompted the CSB investigation that led to this recommendation to the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Environmental Protection:

Work with the Director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to ensure the successful planning, fee collection, and implementation of the Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program as described in Recommendation 2008-08-WV-R6, above, including the provision of services to all eligible facilities in the State.

That Recommendation 2008-08-WV-6 part refers to this recommendation to the local health department:

Establish a Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program to enhance the prevention of accidental releases of highly hazardous chemicals, and optimize responses in the event of their occurrence. In establishing the program, study and evaluate the possible applicability of the experience of similar programs in the country.

Readers may recall that state officials basically ignored this recommendation for a couple of years, until that troublesome chemical spill over on the Elk River that contaminated drinking water supplies for hundreds of thousands of residents. When that happened, we published this story in the Gazette:

Three years ago this month, a team of federal experts urged the state of West Virginia to help the Kanawha Valley create a new program to prevent hazardous chemical accidents.The U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended the step after its extensive investigation of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute. Since then, the proposal has gone nowhere.

When lawmakers, under pressure following the Freedom Industries spill, passed legislation responding to the incident, they tucked this onto the mandate for a new Public Water System Supply Study Commission:

A review and consideration of the recommendations of the U. S. Chemical Safety and Hazard and Investigation Board after its investigation of the Bayer CropScience incident of 2008.

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Members of the state Public Water System Supply Study Commission held their first meeting of the year in late August.

What’s happened since then?

Well, the commission’s first report to the Legislature, submitted back in December 2014, didn’t take any position about the CSB recommendation. It simply reported:

This work group, chaired by Dr. Rahul Gupta, has met and is working with other citizen groups and will have information available in the summer of 2015.

Citizen groups have indeed tried to keep some focus on this CSB recommendation, and create both political room and a clear path to implement it (see here, here and here).

Still, the second commission report to lawmakers had little more to say about the CSB recommendation than the first report did:

There are no final recommendations at this time. The Work Group will meet in January 2016 to resume consideration of the recommendations of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. The Work Group is reviewing an outline of a West Virginia Chemical Release Prevention Program that has been vetted by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and is included in Appendix G.

So here we are, coming up on six years since the CSB issued its recommendation.  And the last we heard from the legislative commission was that they didn’t get around to having their first 2016 meeting until August 17.  That’s right — more than 8 months without a single meeting.

Not for nothing, but remember that the commission is now chaired by State Public Health Commissioner Gupta, who after Freedom indicated that he welcomed an opportunity to revisit the CSB recommendation. Dr. Gupta wasn’t at that Aug. 17 meeting, and there really wasn’t much discussion there of the CSB recommendation.

Walt Ivey, director of the Office of Environmental Health Services for the state Bureau of Public Health, ran the meeting and said afterward that the reason the commission hadn’t met until late August was it was waiting for public water systems to file the newly required source-water protection plans because that was really the only new thing for the commission to discuss.

If any commission members at the meeting were bothered at all about the inaction on the CSB recommendation, they didn’t speak up about it.