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Recommendations Ignored That Could Have Prevented Freedom Spill

Reported: Feb. 6, 2014 11:18 PM EST
Updated: Feb. 7, 2014 3:23 PM EST

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Rick Lord) - Natalie Elkins knows all about chemistry. She teaches it at Nitro, and lives in the shadows of the DuPont chemical plant in Belle. She vividly remembers not only the deadly leak at that plant in 2010, but also the fatal blast at Bayer Cropscience in 2008. "We were lying in bed when that explosion happened in Institute and I actually felt it shake my house," says Elkins.

Like many, the pregnant mother of two is frustrated and angry over what happened on January 9th, when 10,000 gallons of MCHM leaked into the Elk River. "The thing that scares me the most with this was that it was clear, colorless, and had an odor," says Elkins. "If this had been odorless, we still wouldn't know. This could have happened in the past with another chemical that was clear, colorless and odorless and we don't know."

What we do know is that, following those incidents at Bayer and DuPont, the Chemical Safety Board released a 161-page report, making recommendations to ensure that another chemical accident would not happen here. The report advised the local Health Department to work with the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Environmental Protection to oversee chemical facilities in the state. It was an ambitious proposal, but one that had been proven to work.

"The core of that recommendation was that they had seen a dramatic drop in accidents in Contra Costa County, in California," explains Gupta. "They had seen ten or more years of decline. We listened to them and said yeah we will do what we can, but state code isn't set up that way."

That was a problem; not only would those agencies have to work together, they would have to work on getting legislators on board. With that in mind, Gupta wrote to the DHHR in 2011 and again in 2013, expressing interest in implementing the CSB's recommendations. On both occasions, the responses from Cabinet Secretaries Lewis and Fucillo were tepid at best. Gupta felt like there was zero interest from that agency, saying "I did my part in encouraging people to do their part to get something done."

Current DHHR Executive Secretary R. Neal Kerley told Eyewitness News that the DHHR and DEP agreed under former Cabinet Secretary Michael Lewis that they would jointly approach the legislature in June, 2011, to provide funding for a study of successful initiatives from around the country. However, no legislation was introduced. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin says the legislation at that time never really had a chance because the recommendations suggested that each county should have oversight. Tomblin believes it should have been a statewide standard.

Maya Nye is the president of People Concerned about Chemical Safety and has been pushing for years to have the state adopt the CSB's recommendations. She has her own opinion on why they haven't, saying "I'm not sure how popular it would have been to tax the businesses that are already here. I think there probably would have been some push back over that. Its a self-funding mechanism in California. The industry pays for it there."

But even she agrees there is plenty of blame to go around for the incidents at Bayer and DuPont, and especially this water crisis. "It's not any one particular person's responsibility," says Nye. "I think it was a massive systematic breakdown."

Dr. Gupta thinks complacency set in. "We wait for a tragedy to happen, and we become proactive, but we wait and wait and don't work hard enough to prevent the next one from happening, laments Gupta. "This is a classic example of that."

Regardless of whether the leak at Freedom would have been prevented if the state had acted on the recommendations by the CSB, Governor Tomblin is encouraged by legislation working its way through the House. "I think the bill will pass," says Tomblin. "I think there will be additional strength given to DEP so they can do the inspections and make sure something like this never happens again."

But if politicians are looking for someone to convince, they should look no further than Natalie Elkins, who speaks for a lot of West Virginians when talking about her concerns in dealing with yet another crisis in chemical valley. "Everyone is outraged. Everyone is angry. Everyone wants more regulation," says Elkins. "But then when it comes down to it, that's going to hurt jobs, and nothing gets done. And I'm afraid that's what's going to happen here. Even with regulation, I'm not trusting anyone to enforce that right now. I don't think right now, there's anything that would make me feel safe."

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