The first clue I had I’d missed a potentially important story was the Facebook status update from Charleston City Councilwoman and water safety advocate Karan Ireland:
“Public hearing on WVAW’s SWPP. Where y’at?”
It all become more clear when Councilwoman Ireland posted this follow-up status:
There weren’t any journalists at tonight’s public hearing on West Virginia American Water’s SWPP. (And, only a handful of the “public”.)
I’m curious to know why there was no coverage.
While not exactly the second coming, this meeting was fairly important to readers in the Kanawha Valley. The whole reason that water utilities are being made to write plans for protecting their source water supplies is the Freedom Industries chemical spill, and the effects it had on the state’s largest drinking water facility, serving something like 300,000 people in Charleston and surrounding communities. The hearing offered a chance for local residents to comment on West Virginia American Water’s plan, and perhaps mention things like the need for a secondary, backup water source.
Folks like Councilwoman Ireland were understandably concerned that there wasn’t much turnout, and that perhaps the lack of media coverage prior to the event played a role in that — and that the lack of media attendance of the hearing itself wasn’t such a great thing either.
Why was there no coverage? Well, I can only speak for the Gazette-Mail, but the answer is I didn’t know the hearing was taking place.
I should have. Public notice of the meeting — held last night in South Charleston — was right there on the Secretary of State’s website. The notice was submitted to the Secretary of State on Aug. 23, and went on the website that very day, officials there tell me. The Department of Health and Human Resources and its Bureau for Public Health have a list of all the public hearing dates on its website here.
So how did I miss it? Well — I’m ashamed to say — I was waiting for the press release.
You see, the Bureau for Public Health has been very helpfully issuing a press release for every one of the public hearings it schedules for each of the 125 public water systems that serve residents around the state of West Virginia. When those press releases started showing up back in June or July, I asked Allison Adler, the DHHR communications director, if they had the entire list of hearings scheduled and if the one for the Kanawha Valley plant had been set. She told me:
All of the hearings have not been scheduled, nor has the one for Kanawha Valley. As the hearings are scheduled, they will be posted to the BPH website and we will continue to disseminate press releases.
It was that last bit that got me. But really, they were great about sending out those press releases. I’ve got an email inbox full of them. And I was perfectly willing last night to believe that I had somehow simply overlooked the all-important announcement about the Kanawha Valley plant. But when I started looking through my inbox, and then on the DHHR’s press release webpage, I started wondering if that really was what happened.
So then earlier this afternoon, the DHHR sent me an email in response to my inquiry seeking a copy of the press release about the Kanawha Valley plant public hearing:
After searching for the press release that you inquired about, we discovered that a batch of three press releases were prepared, but were not issued. The three press releases announcing source water protection plan public hearings were for the WVAW Kanawha Valley System, WVAW New River System and Mount Hope System, and Barbour County’s two systems.
Because we want to be consistent in our messaging to the public and since press releases were not issued for those three meetings, we will schedule and announce additional hearing dates for the WVAW Kanawha Valley System, WVAW New River System and Mount Hope System, and Barbour County’s systems in November. However, we will go forward with the original schedule as well, so we don’t miss anyone who had planned on attending those meetings.
Source Water Protection Plans are an important public health issue, and we want to be sure that the public has been notified of meetings in a timely manner.
Remember now, that original schedule is available online here, and the Secretary of State’s list of public meeting notices is here. And stay tuned for the announcement about additional hearings on the Kanawha Valley treatment plant and the others where press releases didn’t get issued.